Journalism ethics take a hit with Rolling Stone's unravelling rape story

Rolling Stone magazine's decision not to fact-check a sensational story about gang rape at the University of Virginia, a story that is now coming seriously unravelled, is an object lesson in how not to do journalism, Neil Macdonald writes.

Magazine's decision not to fact-check rape victim's story ending badly all round

Demonstrators with signs gathered at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in November following the publication of the Rolling Stone article. (The Associated Press)

What do you call someone who graduated at the bottom of his class in medical school? You call him "Doctor."

That aphorism packs an awful lot into just a few words. It's even more accurate where my craft is concerned.

Even bad doctors must have qualifications, and are bound by enforceable ethics. Not so journalists; in fact, anyone who says he's a journalist is one.

And as revenues implode and the death spiral of traditional journalism accelerates, such journalistic ethics as once existed are rapidly becoming artifacts.

As Andrew Sullivan, the former editor of The New Republic and Atlantic magazines, put it recently, there is no longer any "sense of an ethical line ... It is survival at all costs."

Among other things, the new breed is adept at sticking a finger in the air and sensing trends and going with them. Joining social movements can make you look worthy; it also results in treasured Facebook "shares" and re-tweets.

That is the only possible explanation for the travesty published last month by Rolling Stone magazine, generally considered a pillar of traditional, aggressive journalism.

A rape on campus?

Titled "A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA," the article, by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, told the story of Jackie, an 18-year-old freshman at Virginia's renowned state university, whose dream date turned into three hours of being beaten and gang-raped on broken glass during a party at a frat house.

The article went viral, provoking headlines around the world (and lots of mouse clicks and revenue for Rolling Stone).

The outrage was what you'd expect. Police opened an investigation.

The university, reeling, was held up as a perfect example of "campus rape culture." It began an internal review of sexual assault investigations and a crackdown on fraternities.

Rector George Martin and University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan (right) vowed to investigate the Rolling Stone allegations and what the magazine called a hidden culture of sexual violence at the school when the story first came to light on Nov. 25. (The Daily Progress, Ryan M. Kelly / Associated Press)

The fraternity named in the story, Phi Kappa Psi, was vilified and besieged.

Erdely, a crusading freelance reporter who has written often for Rolling Stone, tweeted self-serving bulletins about how the fratboys, exposed, were stonewalling.

Then, on Dec. 5, Rolling Stone announced that "there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account."

The statement also admitted what must be a modern journalistic first: Erdely and her editors, it turned out, had agreed not to check Jackie's story with the people she was accusing.

"In trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault," said the statement, "we made a judgment – the kind of judgment reporters make every day."

Facts in question

Well, I've never heard of such a judgment. It violates the bedrock journalistic concept that there are two sides (at least) to every story.

It was the Washington Post, which does still follow that rule, that forced the Rolling Stone climbdown.

The Post has checked Jackie's story in detail, and a great deal about it is now in question.

The frat house, it turns out, had no party on the evening cited. The rapist Jackie named is not a member of the frat, or even registered as a student at UVA.

It turns out the Rolling Stone reporter not only didn't contact the men Jackie accused, she didn't bother speaking with the friends to whom Jackie first went, in hysterics, with her gang-rape story. Or at least these friends say Erdely didn't.

Had the reporter talked to them, they'd have told her that while something did happen to Jackie that night — one of them says he believes she underwent some sort of trauma — they were skeptical from the beginning about her story's details.

They'd have told the reporter, had she asked, that the photographs Jackie had texted to them of her date that night was actually a picture of one of Jackie's former high school classmates.

That man now lives in another state and barely knows Jackie.

Activist journalism

The Rolling Stone reporter, initially defiant, has gone silent. Sexual assault awareness advocates, who rallied for Jackie and still support her, are now attacking the media for perpetuating "the myth of the false rape accusation."

But while false rape accusations are rare, they are no myth, which is why there are such things as due process, legal safeguards and fact-checking rules for journalists.

The three friends of Jackie in the Rolling Stone story, quoted anonymously, have now come forward and told ABC News on Friday that they hadn't spoken to the reporter and had much different interpretations of what happened on the night in question. (ABC News website)

There are also cases, some nationally famous and others less well known but just as devastating, in which legal safeguards rescued what was left of people's reputations after false charges were levelled and advocates piled on.

What makes this case different, though, is that it involves an important media institution disregarding journalism for activism.

Rolling Stone accepted the vogue notion that the accuser should always be unswervingly believed — and that any skepticism "re-traumatizes."

That is a fine rule for people staffing rape crisis centres and phone hotlines. Women (and men; a significant percentage of sexual assaults on campus involve male victims) who say they have been raped should be treated with respect and trust.

But journalism is supposed to involve healthy skepticism and due diligence, no matter how strongly the winds of public opinion might gust on a particular issue.

In the case of Rolling Stone, a cynic might note that the climbdown and subsequent publicity resulted in another torrent of mouse clicks. (Nowadays, getting it wrong can be profitable.)

But that is increasingly the nature of postmodern journalism; facts matter less than trends. (Anyway, as postmodernists would ask, what's a fact, really?)

Incidentally, a vile internet troll named Charles C. Johnson has begun driving this story in entirely another direction.

He's "doxed" the accuser, Jackie, outing her personal information online, violating another old-fashioned journalistic ethic.

Why would he do such a thing? Because it's his specialty. It gets mouse clicks. Oh, and because he's "a journalist."


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.