Rolling Stone published a story recounting a woman’s allegations of gang rape at a fraternity at the University of Virginia.
There is no doubt that sexual assaults and rape are a hideous problem at every college campus. These are serious, heart-rending issues that must be dealt with effectively by students, parents, college administrators and law enforcement. And, the fault in this story lies not with the alleged victim of sexual assault, but with the reporter and the magazine’s editors, all of whom failed to properly vet the facts.
But this is about stupid journalism. Publication of investigative stories must reach the highest standards of journalistic care — because usually the allegations are so serious and potentially damaging to those targeted that all facts must be 100 percent accurate.
Rolling Stone failed to meet those standards and thus was forced to apologize for shoddy reporting and incorrect facts. The story nonetheless led to student protests at UVA and, 100 percent right or wrong, will probably bring much-needed reforms to that and other universities.
The crisis in sexual assault on campuses is widespread and speaks to too much drinking, lax enforcement, a boys-will-be-boys attitude and a host of other, larger societal issues.
The crisis for Rolling Stone and its reporting is to its credibility. The magazine issued a thorough apology, but the damage is done. In addition to apologizing, it would do well to bring in a panel of experts to review its editing procedures. It needs to do much more than express sorrow.
As Yvonne Abraham wrote in The Boston Globe, this is, indeed, a disaster for everyone.
The destructive fallout goes beyond one woman’s suffering. The Rolling Stone story, which had helped make it all but impossible to ignore the scourge of campus sexual assault, is now going to do the opposite. Because now, emboldened by this one possibly fabricated story of rape, the chorus of people who believe women routinely make these things up will grow louder.
It already has. You could see them doing their happy dances in the comments below the Post story, which, a couple of hours after it went up, looked a lot like 1950. If it turns out to be entirely false, Jackie’s story will join other fake narratives — the Tawana Brawley debacle, the accusations against the Duke lacrosse players — as weapons for those moral cave-dwellers who would have you believe that women “cry rape” all the time for attention, or revenge.
The managing editor, Will Dana, deserves credit for admitting the lapses. Other publications and broadcasters in similar positions were not as forthcoming.
But this is a self-inflicted wound. The crisis was totally avoidable. Maybe it was with more staffing and more experienced editors. Maybe it was with less pressure on all print publications to make splashes of relevancy in a digital world. Maybe it was demanding corroboration from other sources, more in-depth reporting. And maybe, the reporter and publication needed to maintain skepticism about every source, every time.
What reforms will Rolling Stone incorporate into its editing process to make sure this can’t happen again? In other words, what internal audit will it perform — as it would expect the targets of its investigations to utilize — that reforms the magazine?
There is a crisis of sexual assault on American college campuses — where women go to learn and grow and where they should be safe — as well as in society at large. It needed a credible story to focus on the human impact of these assaults, not one that went up in flames.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.