In November, 2014 the Rolling Stone magazine received worldwide attention for a story on the brutal gang rape of a student at the University of Virginia. The story had a significant impact not only on the University of Virginia but also on the broader community.
Some accepted the story as true—after all, it was a horrifying example of the rape culture that had become part of a general media narrative. Others had doubts about the story—some for ideological reasons and some for what turned out to be legitimate reasons. It turns out that the story is largely (or even entirely) untrue and Rolling Stone issued an apology to its readers.
In preparing and printing this story about the rape of a woman nicknamed Jackie, the relevant people at the Rolling Stone failed both professionally and morally. In investigating the story, the Rolling Stone did not contact the men alleged to be involved in the attack. This seems rather contrary to what should be a principle of good journalism, namely that of seeking information regarding all the relevant parties rather than simply using the account of one side. Also, given the information found by other news sources, such as the Washington Post, it appears that the magazine should have been more thorough in its investigation. After all, there is a professional and moral duty to engage in a proper investigation before publishing a story with rather serious potential consequences. When people believed the story was true, there were rather serious consequences. Now that the credibility of the story seems to have been damaged or even destroyed, there are also serious consequences and these will be discussed below.
To be fair, I am obligated to offer some defense for the Rolling Stone. First, as the managing editor Will Dana noted, the magazine was honoring Jackie’s request that they not contact the men she had accused of raping her. According to Dana, they wished to be sensitive to the shame and humiliation women often feel after being victims of sexual assault and Jackie said she feared retaliation from the men.
While the professed motivations seem laudable on part of the magazine, it is not clear how a more thorough investigation would have shamed and humiliated Jackie. It might be claimed that to even investigate the accused would be to engage in wrongful doubting of the victim. The obvious reply is that a thorough investigation is not an expression of doubt, but good journalistic practice. While an alleged victim should be given due respect, this respect does not entail that a journalist should abandon due diligence. But, to be fair to the journalists, there is no doubt considerable political and social pressure to avoid even the appearance of skepticism in such cases.
Second, the managing editor claims that Jackie’s story held up to considerable scrutiny and it is only recently that the problems in the story were found. This allows for a reasonable defense: even a thorough and proper investigation can turn out to have gotten things wrong, as revealed by later investigation.
The main problem with this defense is that the reason why the story seems to have held up is that the Rolling Stone operated within limits set by Jackie: she requested that they not contact the accused and told them that her friend would not speak with the magazine. It turned out that her friend was quite willing to speak with the Washington Post and that his story differs from her account in many key ways. As such, it would seem that the magazine cannot claim this defense. Rather, it can only claim that it decided to seemingly put its trust in Jackie and to allow her to decide the scope of their investigation. This is, obviously enough, not a good approach to investigative journalism.
Third, a defense can be made regarding the discrepancies. As has been well-established, eye-witness reports are unreliable and a person’s memories of an event tend to be rather inaccurate. As such, it would hardly be surprising for Jackie’s account to differ from the accounts of other and have some inconsistencies. This is, of course, a lesson from basic critical thinking.
However, there are limits to how far these facts excuse inconsistencies and factual errors. While there is not an exact line (such as six minor errors and one major error), there are reasonable boundaries to the extent to which these things can be fairly chalked up to these human failings. Looking at the details laid out in the apology and other accounts, the discrepancies between Jackie’s story and the accounts of witnesses and other information (such as the dates for parties at the fraternity) seem to have crossed that boundary. As such, it is rather difficult to chalk up the problems to this sort of cause.
The evidence does suggest that something did happen to Jackie, but the evidence does not seem to support the story told by the Rolling Stone. In defense of Jackie, it could be claimed that she was encouraged to embellish her story or that she felt obligated to tell the sort of story that she believed they were looking for. There are, of course, psychological pressures to do such things.
While the folks at Rolling Stone have contributed one more example of how not to conduct a proper journalistic investigation (and given me an example to use in my classes), there are some serious consequences to this incident.
One consequence is the harm done to the University of Virginia and those accused in the story. While it might be claimed that if the fraternity was not guilty of this specific crime, some fraternity is guilty of something similar, that is hardly just reporting.
A second consequence is that the revelations regarding the story will be taken as evidence that women, in general, lie about sexual assault. It can also be taken as evidence that the alleged problem of sexual assault is also a lie. When people point out that most reports of such assaults are not false, doubters can point to this article and inquire why that claim should be believed. By allowing this story to be published without proper investigation, the magazine has thus fueled such doubts.
A third consequence is that these revelations will also be taken as evidence that the media is eager to serve the “feminist agenda” and push the narrative of the rape culture. After all, one might claim, the magazine saw the story as too good to check and put forth a story in accord with the feminist narrative—a story that turned out to not be true.
This can be taken as evidence that the alleged problem of sexual assault is a fabrication, the result of feminists pushing a narrative on a media that is either a co-conspirator or spineless and eager to cash in on whatever grabs the public’s attention.
Obviously, the failure of the Rolling Stone does not prove that women generally lie about sexual assault or that it is not a problem. But, revelations of what seems to be, at best, sloppy journalism do certainly contribute to doubts.