A study by the Columbia School of Journalism into the discredited Rolling Stone article about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia (UVA) concludes that the story represented a ‘journalistic failure that was avoidable’. The report, published on Easter Sunday, said Rolling Stone did not undertake ‘basic, even routine journalistic practice’ to verify details. The author of the Rolling Stone piece, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, took the word of the alleged victim, ‘Jackie’, without even bothering to speak with the accused or Jackie’s friends, says the report. And Rolling Stone’s fact-checkers and editors let it slide.
While damning, the Columbia report was not really surprising. An investigation by the Washington Post late last year had already found Rolling Stone’s journalistic practices to be exceptionally shoddy. The Post could find no evidence that the gang rape took place, and strongly suggested that Jackie had fabricated the story. And in late March, the local Charlottesville police said ‘there is no substantive basis to support the account alleged in the Rolling Stone article’.
The Columbia report rightly details serious journalistic mistakes, but, in doing so, it gives a misleading impression. From reading it, you could conclude that the Rolling Stone blow-up is an isolated case, and that this discredited story was simply the result of faulty internal procedures. Neither is true. The report’s narrow focus on editorial processes overlooks the wider context: that our society is in the midst of a hysterical panic over an imaginary epidemic of rape on campuses. The Rolling Stone piece is a product of that panic; it is a symptom of a bigger problem. It was a belief in the existence of a rape epidemic, and the desire to convince others of it, that led Rolling Stone to embrace advocacy over fact-finding.
The Columbia report hints at — but doesn’t really develop — this point when it discusses Erdely’s original motive for writing the story: ‘Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show “what it’s like to be on campus now… where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture”.’ In other words, she had already reached her conclusion, and was on the lookout for an extraordinary example that would be ‘emblematic’ of ‘rape culture’.
At Columbia University, which hosts the journalism school, there is a campaign to expel a male student who is accused of rape, simply on the word of the accuser, who carries a mattress around campus in protest. At campus rallies, demonstrators shout ‘I believe!’ to indicate their support for all women who make accusations. Erdely essentially adopted that same outlook in researching the UVA story. Trying to defend her lack of inquisitiveness, she said that Jackie was ‘a person I found credible’ — as if that sufficed, and meant no verification from other sources was needed.