Worse than Wrong: The Rolling Stone Defamation Case and What It Means to Journalism

If anyone ever asked me if journalism has a future I would briskly say yes. No doubt it has. But when things like the one we’ll go through on this article happen, it puts the job at risk. And some might argue it is not only a job, but public service.

“The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing”. (Kovach and Rosensteil, 17)

Would the case be that information not be right, what would happen? How would it affect people? Here we’ll go through a case where everything that could go wrong went wrong. The Rolling Stone Defamation Case dissected. Because a historic journalism failure should not serve as a mockery but as a lesson for all journalists-to-be and actual journalists. And readers, who should either never lose sight of their critical eye.

As former Rolling Stone managing editor, Will Dana, puts it, on november 2014 the magazine published a story, ‘A Rape on Campus’, “that centered around a University of Virginia student’s horrifying account of her alleged gang rape at a campus fraternity house”. The story boomed and with it, questions surrounding the veracity of the narrative arose. Another media outlet, The Washington Post, conducted an investigation that resulted in the discovery of “details suggesting that the assault could not have taken place the way we described it, the truth of the story became a subject of national controversy”, stated Dana.

“The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification”. (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 98) Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the journalist author of ‘A Rape on Campus’ mis-followed all of the 5 steps the discipline of verification proposed by Kovach and Rosenstiel on The Elements of Journalism book gives away. The story Erdely wrote is wrong at heart and only relies on one source: the “victim”. In journalism we have until the last minute to raise our hand and question the veracity of what we’re going to publish, but once it’s published it’s out there.

So let’s break down Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s article in the 5 steps Kovach and Rosenstiel propose, or as they rather like to call them, the 5 “intellectual principles of a science of reporting” (111):

1.Never add anything that was not there originally.

As New Yorker writer, John McPhee, puts it, “The non-fiction writer is communicating with the reader about real people in real places. So if those people talk, you say what those people said. You don’t say what the writer decides they said….You don’t make up dialogue. You don’t make a composite charachter….And you don’t get inside their [the characters’] heads and think for them”. For what we know, not only Erdely had only one source which was the presumably victim of a rape, she made up conversations and wrote them in the article as if they had really happened.

For instance, she recalls moments of the rape that never happened:

“Grab its motherfucking leg”,she heard a voice say. And that’s when Jackie knew she was going to be raped. 

And even recreates moments that are not real: 

Minutes later, her three best friends on campus – two boys and a girl (whose names are changed) – arrived to find Jackie on a nearby street corner, shaking. “What did they do to you? What did they make you do?” Jackie recalls her friend Randall demanding. Jackie shook her head and began to cry. The group looked at one another in a panic. They all knew about Jackie’s date; the Phi Kappa Psi house loomed behind them. “We have to get her to the hospital,” Randall said.

The piece is so incredibly well written you feel the pain Jackie, the girl who said she got raped, must be feeling, and you believe it. The magazine that publishes it, Rolling Stone, has also part of the fault to cover up to. It was an institutional failure and editors are also to blame. As the Columbia Journalism Review puts it: “The jury found the passage was actionable—i.e., that it was untrue—and that the magazine had operated recklessly by publishing it”.

2. Never decieve the audience.

For this one there’s a method Kovach and Rosenstiel state that should be highlighted on everyone’s book. They say that “if acknowledging what you’ve done would make it unpalatable to the audience, then it is self-evidently improper” (113). As a journalist, you are human, you can make mistakes, but you should never loose the ability of questioning yourself. Erdely spent 6 months investigating this rape and got only one source. As a journalist she knew it was not right. Then why would she endure on the story? Maybe, and analyzing this case in particular and its sensible matter, you feel like you have to listen to the “victim’s” requirements, but you shouldn’t numb your journalistic instinct based on anything. The author didn’t even call Drew, the so-called perpetrator of the rape. You need to talk to him because he’s the one who’s accused. He has to give you his side of the story. And as a journalist you have to keep in mind that there’s -at least- two sides of the story. In this case there were multiple sides. From Jackie’s friends, to the fraternity where Jackie said it happened, UVA, Drew and his crew. 

3. Be as transparent as possible about your methods and motives.

“Most of the limitations journalists face in trying to move from accuracy to truth are addressed, if not overcome, by being honest about the nature of their knowledge, why they trust it, and what efforts they make to learn more” (114). The question: “How do you know that?” (115)  is important. And could also be life-changing. “If Erdely had called Kathryn Hendley and Alex Stock – their true names – to check their sides of Jackie’s account of Sept. 28 and 29, they would have denied saying any of the words Jackie attributed to them (as Ryan would have as well). They would have described for Erdely a history of communications with Jackie that would have left the reporter with many new questions. For example, the friends said that Jackie told them that her date on Sept. 28 was not a lifeguard but a student in her chemistry class named Haven Monahan. (The Charlottesville police said in March they could not identify a UVA student or any other person named Haven Monahan.) All three friends would have spoken to Erdely, they said, if they had been contacted”. Little things matter, and big things like these calls the author could have made, are important. 

4. Rely on your own original reporting.

And also question your own sources. “Erdely believed firmly that Jackie’s account was reliable. So did her editors and the story’s fact-checker, who spent more than four hours on the telephone with Jackie, reviewing every detail of her experience.” Ederly became skeptical about the UVA, and it seems like she was also pushing a narrative. It was a big case, and if it were true, it would have been a big scandal. But in life you’ve got to decide if you want to be a journalist or a fiction writer. Sources are the basis of the story and they can’t be anonymous nor single. As stated in The Law of Journalism and Mass Communication by Trager, Dente Ross and Reynolds: “A promise of anonymity may be the only way a reporter can convince a source to talk”, but this source has to be known by the reporter.

5. Exercise humility.

Pushing a narrative also has to do with vanity and wanting success. Every some pharagraphs there are songs from fraternities that reinforce the message of how violent boys are there. Like this one: 

All you girls from Mary Washingtonand RMWC,

never let a Cavalier an inch above your knee.

He’ll take you to his fraternity house and fill you full of beer.

And soon you’ll be the mother  of a bastard Cavalier!

“Rugby Road”

And pictures in the article are also decieving, they make you feel something. Which is understandable in this click-based society nowadays but it’s not acceptable. When Erdely said that she  “was shocked to have a story that was going to go viral in this way”, some alarms ring in your head. She knew a rape story would be a trending topic. And she was not wrong. “The online story ultimately attracted more than 2.7 million views, more than any other feature not about a celebrity that the magazine had ever published.” “Level with people. Make no claims to an omniscience you cannot justify. Acknowledging what you don’t know gives you more authority, not less.” (124)

“Still, journalism, as a field, is as addled as an addict, gaunt, wasted, and twitchy, its pockets as empty as its nights are sleepless. It’s faster than it used to be, so fast. It’s also edgier, and needier, and angrier. It wants and it wants and it wants. But what does it need?”  questions Jill Lepore. I would argue it needs girls and boys who feel so passionate about the state of the world that they believe their contribution to sharing what is happening can make a difference. Because in a society where people work almost non-stop, Lippmann thought of citizens like theatergoers who “arrive in the middle of the third act and leave before the last curtain, staying just long enough to decide who is the hero and who is the villain”.  We have a responsibility to anatomize facts to the core and sew them together in the most comprehensive way possible. We just can’t be wrong. Because if that’s the case, consequences make it worse than wrong. May we commit to what Dan Gillmor, author of We the Media advocated for: thoroughness, accuracy, fairness, transparency, and -this I may add- honesty. 

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