Rolling Stone retracts sensational rape story: A colossal journalism meltdown

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The above picture is a replication of the one published on the Rolling Stone website, after the report was made public

‘A story that looks too good to be true probably is’, goes the old adage. And yet, many respected media houses print stories that turn out to be completely exaggerated and fabricated.

The latest controversy to hit journalism hard is the Rolling Stone blockbuster report, ‘A Rape on Campus’, which appears to be completely untrue.

In November 2014, the Rolling Stone printed the sensational article, ‘A Rape on Campus’. The story detailed an alleged rape that took place on the campus of University of Virginia.

On publication, the story created a huge buzz across the US. With campus rape a huge problem in America, the story seemed authentic.

But within a week of publication, claims the story made was put to test by reporting from Washington Post and other publications.

Major discrepancies were found in the report, peppered with key inconsistencies. Yes, too good to be true.

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University of Virginia

The repercussions of the story were felt far and wide. Student protest erupted, campus rape became a contested political property and there was major polarization of views.

The Charoletteville Police even suspended their investigation of the alleged gang rape, due to lack of evidence.

After months of criticism of the piece, the magazine agreed to submit its work to an independent review by the Columbia Journalism School in New York.

The report, made public on Sunday, is as sensational as the original article. It faulted the reporting, editing and fact-checking of the now discredited piece.

There are many counts on which the report failed.

  • First and most important, the account of the supposed victim—referred to as “Jackie” by the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Elderly—is not at all supported by independent facts.
  • Elderly never located the supposed ringleader of the gang rape, and his existence cannot be established.
  • The reporter never approached the three friends whom Jackie quoted as sounding coldly unsympathetic after she told them about the rape.
  • All three deny saying the things attributed to them.
  • Records show that Phi Kappa Psi held no social event of the kind Jackie described on the night she said she was raped.
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Students walk past the Phi Kappa Psi frat house

The piece is a historic failure in journalism. “[The reporting failures] involve basic, even routine journalistic practice – not special investigative effort,” the Columbia report said.

“And if these reporting pathways had been followed, Rolling Stone very likely would have avoided trouble.”

The report contains a litany of journalistic malfeasance on the part of the Rolling Stone writer and her editors.

So why would an institution like the Rolling Stone risk all for an unverified report? How could they make such rudimentary mistakes?

For those aspiring to enter journalism or are fledging reporters, this question begs to be answered.

As former New York Times editor Bill Keller pointed out in an interview with The Times, the pressure from the Internet to engage in “click bait” aggravated the problems with the story.

There is definitely truth to that. Even though Rolling Stone is a monthly magazine, it is part of an extremely competitive media landscape.

Today, print media is finding it tough to survive with ad revenues being siphoned to other mediums like TV and online. Websites are the only ray of hope.

Clicks amount to revenue. And editors want their stories to be true.

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The desire to have a story to be true is a powerful drug that can intoxicate even the most hard-core and deeply-ingrained journalistic instincts of senior editors at institutions like the New York TimesNewsweek, Rolling Stone.

Closer home, the reporting on the Arushi Talwar murder case showed how the Indian media too went thoroughly wrong on the big story.

The bottom-line remains – in pursuit of ‘click bait’, the story trumps journalistic principles.

It was a high-profile disaster. The story generated 2.7 million page-views, according to the report, which is more than “any other feature not about a celebrity”, in the magazine’s history.

The Columbia report shows that adhering to a relatively “old” set of journalistic standards, might have prevented the Rolling Stone from publishing the flawed story.

“If both the reporter and checker had understood that by policy they should routinely share specific, derogatory details with the subjects in their reporting,” the report states, “Rolling Stone might have veered in a different direction.

The recommendations of the Columbia report to the magazine are basic – Ban or severely restrict the use of pseudonyms; check all derogatory information; and seek responses to specific details, rather than asking for general comments.

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Sheila Coronel and Steve Coll from Columbia Journalism School addressing a press conference on the report

And these guidelines aren’t restricted to assault stories alone. They are simple rules all journalist should follow for every story.

But at no cost, the Columbia report makes clear, can one abandon the rules of journalism.

On Sunday, the Rolling Stone website retracted the story. In its place is the finding of the report and an apology from the editor, Will Dana.

He calls the report a “painful reading” and a “fascinating document”. An unfortunate statement, as it looks like modern journalism will have to bear the consequences of their mistake.

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