OPINION: When journalism misses the mark
The national conversation surrounding sexual assault on college campuses has been ablaze over the past few years due to testimonies rising to the surface and states responding with new legislation. It’s a topic that is ethically undebatable, similar to global climate change. So what could possibly interrupt a progressive dialogue towards a better world?
Misinformation in the media.
If for some reason you haven’t heard, Rolling Stone published an article in November 2014 about an alleged gang-rape that took place at the University of Virginia in 2012. The article, written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, a freelance reporter who had worked with Rolling Stone in the past, went into extensive detail that illustrated the assault of a female freshman student, involving seven male students at a fraternity party during the first month of school. It attempted to expose the severity of rape and sexual abuse on college campuses. Erdely “was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case,” and was put into contact with a student at UVA named “Jackie,” according to an article published by Rolling Stone on Sunday, April 5.
The article went viral after it was published online. It received close to 3 million views, and as the story grew, questions arose. Rolling Stone is now under scrutiny because police reports state that law enforcement officials were unable to find evidence that supported Jackie’s story that Erdely referenced.
Because this story hit a major nerve on a social framework, Rolling Stone had no choice but to retract Erdely’s article and published a statement from the managing editor along with an ethics audit from the Columbia Journalism School outlining where Rolling Stone and Erdely failed to meet reporting standards.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women are sexually assaulted during college. This is an astonishing statistic. We understand that Erdely was trying to expose a larger issue at one of the nation’s most prominent universities. But by not checking facts and deciding to publish the article without finding any supporting information, she took the focus away from rape victims and their stories, and added to a mounting distrust regarding journalism.
Sexual assault and rape accusations can’t and shouldn’t be taken lightly. That’s our main issue with this story and with Rolling Stone deciding to publish this article without sufficient fact checking. It has completely taken away from the validity of rape and sexual assault victims and has instead sensationalized a story that may or may not be true.
Less than five percent of rapes on college campuses are reported to law enforcement, according to NSVRC. This is obviously a major problem. The Washington State Legislature has proposed two bills, 5719 and 5518, which are designed to encourage students to come forward with their stories and provide resources to assist victims in recovery. These are progressive movements that should be on the forefront of sexual assault conversations, but when these bills are searched on Google, almost no media coverage comes up.
But what makes headlines across the nation? A story about faulty information published by a freelance reporter for Rolling Stone.
Jackie’s story, as she presented to Erdely, needed to be told. However, her excitement for what she saw as the ultimate platform for discussing rape on college campuses dissolved in her hands due to a lack of journalistic best practices. She didn’t require Jackie to give her the names of her attackers. She didn’t hesitate to offer her a pseudonym. And she ignored the discrepancies in Jackie’s story that appeared when she talked to her friends.
Rolling Stone ignored every red flag that was put in their way, envisioning that perfect story, but they made headlines for the completely wrong reason. The inaccuracies became the story, and instead of a dialogue about sexual assault, the discourse is on journalistic ethics, or the lack thereof.
We don’t hate Erdely or Rolling Stone. The information they are hoping to convey has the right intentions. But their disregard of accuracy displayed by both parties goes against journalistic guidelines and principles and negates all of the positive information presented. Forcing a questionable story through and writing about it in a sensational manner undermines the good intentions that may have existed and also perpetuates the lack of confidence that the public has for the media.
The Western Front Editorial Board is composed of Anna Jentoft, Dylan Green, Brandon Stone and Stephanie Villiers