They Said That? 12/5/14

From Will Dana, managing editor at Rolling Stone magazine, after the magazine found “discrepancies” in a story about “Jackie,” who alleged she was gang-raped at a University of Virginia fraternity party, in a post on the magazine’s website:

Last month, Rolling Stone published a story titled “A Rape on Campus” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, which described a brutal gang rape of a woman named Jackie at a University of Virginia fraternity house; the university’s failure to respond to this alleged assault – and the school’s troubling history of indifference to many other instances of alleged sexual assaults. The story generated worldwide headlines and much soul-searching at UVA. University president Teresa Sullivan promised a full investigation and also to examine the way the school responds to sexual assault allegations.

Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her. In the months Erdely spent reporting the story, Jackie neither said nor did anything that made Erdely, or Rolling Stone’s editors and fact-checkers, question Jackie’s credibility. Her friends and rape activists on campus strongly supported Jackie’s account. She had spoken of the assault in campus forums. We reached out to both the local branch and the national leadership of the fraternity where Jackie said she was attacked. They responded that they couldn’t confirm or deny her story but had concerns about the evidence.

In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story. 

The first rule of journalism is do all you can to get both sides of a story. Dana said Rolling Stone was trying to be “…sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault…” by not contacting the accused. What about the members of the fraternity, who were feeling not just shame and humiliation, but outrage and fear that they might have to stand trial and face prison time based on what appears to be an unsupported accusation? Agenda first, facts be damned is not journalism. At best its propaganda, at worst its malicious and libelous. This is a weak apology, perhaps because the magazine could be facing legal action. At the least Dana should have directly mentioned the fraternity and the University of Virginia in his apology. If he had to run the gauntlet that public figures accused of a racist, sexist, or just generally “insensitive” statement usually have to run, he (and the writer) would undergo sensitivity encounters and put in apology appearances at the university and fraternity.

A salute is due Bret Stephens, of The Wall Street Journal. His conclusion in a 12/2/14 story, “UVA, Ferguson, and Media Failure”:

It isn’t surprising that a generation of journalists schooled in the idea that ‘narrative’ contains truth independent of fact are so easily taken in by stories that ultimately prove less than accurate, if not utterly untrue. Nor is it surprising that American distrust in the news media is near an all-time high. Bad journalism is bad for journalism, and good journalists have a responsibility and interest in calling out sensationalist stories whose details ring false even as they play to what we’re inclined to believe is true.

The UVA story cries out for a much closer look.

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