There is often a dichotomy drawn between fiction and nonfiction, and as a news publication, we pride ourselves in relaying the latter. However, storytelling is as much a part of journalism as it is of fiction. How journalists and reporters choose to develop a narrative can drastically influence how others perceive information.
The American higher education system was rocked last November upon the publication of “A Rape on Campus,” a lengthy story published in Rolling Stone magazine describing a violent sexual assault at a University of Virginia (UVA) fraternity. The administration quickly suspended all fraternities for the rest of the semester, and furious students held on-campus protests.
However, soon after the story’s publication, other UVA students who claimed to know the victim portrayed in the story came forward to The Washington Post with doubts about the account’s validity. Repeated inquiries into writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s reporting culminated in a thorough audit by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, which was published on Sunday.
The report, available on the Rolling Stone’s website, reveals that Erdely and the magazine’s editors failed to follow basic journalistic procedures. Erdely relied largely on the testimony of her primary source, a student named Jackie, and did not follow through on independent fact-checking, despite the detailed information that Jackie provided.
So how were so many gaping holes overlooked at one of the largest magazines in the country?
Erdely was blinded by a preconceived intent. When Erdely reached out to UVA for a student contact, she was looking for a single, “emblematic” story that would represent the worst of rape culture on college campuses, according to Erdely’s notes audited in the report. The narrative she found was simply too good to fact check.
While Rolling Stone’s editorial staff attributed their lapses to an over-accommodation of Jackie’s wishes in an online statement, Erdely could have upheld journalistic integrity without compromising Jackie’s sensitivity. Erdely’s desire to break a sensational story hijacked her judgement, and this has irrevocably damaged the credibility of all indicted groups: university administrators, fraternities, rape victims and journalists alike.
Though both Erdely and Managing Editor Will Dana released statements apologizing for the article, neither Erdely nor the editors will stop working for Rolling Stone. For a journalistic failure so catastrophic, more accountability should be taken.
“A Rape on Campus” revealed serious problems with the editorial chain of command; others could have stepped in at any point to address the red flags, yet somehow a story with multiple unconfirmed accounts made it to print.
Rather than fulfilling Erdely’s original intention of improving the situation for sexual assault victims on campus, her story has since done the opposite. Journalists are meant to give a voice to the voiceless and advocate for the public’s right to be informed. Instead, Rolling Stone’s lapse of judgment may silence those who may want to speak out.
Editorials represent the majority view of The Miami Hurricane editorial board.