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Editorial: A lapse in judgement

By TNH Editorial Staff

On Sunday, Rolling Stone magazine retracted a 9,000-word story on an alleged rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house. In place of the article is now a report on an investigation into the story carried out by the Columbia School of Journalism.

The report points out clear lapses in the reporting, editing and fact-checking process from the editorial staff at Rolling Stone before the article was published. The story — which reached 2.7 million readers online, more than any other story published by the magazine not involving a celebrity — and the national attention surrounding its retraction has spurred a national discussion about rape culture on college campuses and the importance of sound reporting and responsible journalism.

The discussion around rape culture on college campuses across the nation is one that must take place. When the story, written by Rolling Stone contributing editor Sabrina Rubin Erdely, was still considered credible, it played an important role in bringing attention to the subject. The piece was undeniably well-written and the choice by the author and her editors to deliver the story as a narrative made for a powerful reading experience for the audience.

Rolling Stone pulled the story from the web and replaced it with the unedited report produced by the Columbia School of Journalism. Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana said the magazine does not need to address its editing practices and no one will be fired nor will Ederly be banned from reporting for the publication. Dana also said Rolling Stone’s “reputation rests on a lot more than this one story.”

It is difficult to follow Rolling Stone’s reasoning during the reporting of this story and in the wake of its retraction. One would think the reporters and editors at Rolling Stone — a popular culture magazine that has developed a massive reach since its inception in 1967 and has continuously practiced and adhered to exemplary journalistic practices — would understand the raised platform from which they share their content and the higher stakes that come with having such power. A publication such as Rolling Stone has a massive voice in contemporary social issues such as rape culture or anything else, but when we see lackluster reporting and editing and a clear disregard for even the most basic guidelines of journalism we must question their approach and attitude.

This situation is not as clear-cut as other scandals suffered by large institutions of journalism such as the New York Times in the early 2000s when Jayson Blair was found to have fabricated content from multiple articles. Backlash was so severe Executive Editor Howell Raines left his post.

The Columbia report does not indicate Ederly fabricated the story, but she based her entire story on the account of one person, the alleged rape victim who was given the pseudonym “Jackie” for the story. Ederly’s editors were okay with her narrative being based on this one person’s account given the sensitivity of the circumstances. Investigating a rape case is undoubtedly one of the hardest stories to approach, but not doing the due diligence of contacting anyone else involved was a serious misstep that directly led to the overall failure of the story. Had Ederly reached out to one of Jackie’s three friends who she said were aware of the rape, perhaps this story could have been reexamined before reaching publication.

Or, if some more in-depth investigating had been done, Ederly would have seen that none of the brothers from this particular fraternity were lifeguards at the aquatic center. Basic journalistic steps for verification would have revealed the obvious cracks in the story.

But it does not mean “Jackie” maliciously fabricated a story to Ederly. And the retraction of this story does not mean something terrible didn’t happen to “Jackie” that night in September 2012.

Young women around the nation, on and off college campuses, are victims of sexual assault or rape. While the integrity of the Rolling Stone story has been compromised, the disturbing truth of rape culture on college campuses remains.

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