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Saturday, May 8, 2021

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


  1. There is so much wrong with this editorial.

    First: “It’s a topic that is ethically undebatable, similar to global climate change.” Nonsense. Of course, it’s debatable. It is not settled science. For example, let’s examine one “fact” in the editorial: “one in five women are sexually assaulted in college.” First of all, the correct fact from the Campus Sexual Assault Study is that 13.7% of college women are sexually assaulted, not one in five. The one in five comes from adding in attempted assaults, which brings the percentage to 19%. This study, which had a very liberal definition of “sexual assault,” also found that over half of the women who were “assaulted” did not think the incident was serious enough to contact law enforcement, or that they were at least partially responsible. Why are these “facts” always left out of the discussion? Contrarily, the recent Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization Among College-Age Females 1995-2013 study by the Department of Justice found that only 1.6% of college women are sexually assaulted—not anywhere near one in five. Of course, one assault is too many, but that is not an excuse for fear-mongering the problem to the most extreme extent, which seems to contribute to a goal of feminism: to demonize men. There is room for debate and the editorial’s attempt to shut it down is ethically deplorable.

    The editorial also seemed to be going through some very awkward gymnastics to avoid saying something key. Weaselly phrases like “law en¬forcement officials were unable to find evi¬dence that supported Jackie’s story,” or “a story that may or may not be true,” or “a story about faulty information,” or “forcing a questionable story through,” or “due to a lack of journalistic best practices,” seem to imply that the story was about Rolling Stone not following journalistic standards. Yes, that was part of it, but your editorial avoided the bigger point: that Jackie LIED. (Her last name is Coakley, but I doubt that you will print it.) And this is as undebatable as climate change. She LIED. At first she said she was forced to perform oral sex on five fraternity brothers, but this story later changed to being raped by seven men. She said she was pushed onto a glass coffee table which shattered, and she was then raped on broken glass, and that she was punched in the face, but she had no injuries. She said her date was a member of the fraternity who was a lifeguard at the rec center, but the fraternity had no such member. The fraternity did not have a party on the night in question. She lied about conversations with three friends about the incident. She made up her date, using a picture of a boy from her high school and sent herself emails supposedly from him. The police also found that she lied about a separate incident in which she claimed to have been attacked by two men on the street. How could the editors read the report from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and miss this?—she LIED.

    This editorial is just as guilty as Rolling Stone in being more interested in promoting feminist ideology than in telling the truth. Just as Erdely tried to find the perfect victim who was maliciously raped by, of course, the ultimate symbol of the patriarchy, members of a fraternity, and whose victimization was ignored by her college, the Western Front editorial tried to hide Jackie’s lies so that the whole affair could be blamed on Rolling Stone’s poor journalistic standards. In this way feminism and the Western Front could continue the current witchhunt concerning sexual assault and not deal with “ethically undebatable” debates like one in five, women never lie but we shouldn’t reveal their identity even if they do, and men are scum.

    (By the way, if you want more women who lie about being sexually assaulted in order to demonize men, google these: Mariam Kashani, Desiree Nall, Michelle Gretzinger, Tanya Borachi, Mindy Brickman, Meg Lanker-Simons, and Michaela Morales. And here’s one from WWU: http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2013/10/11/3254807/wwu-student-retracts-report-of.html#storylink=cpy. See how the Western Front covered up this lie in the 10/25/13 edition.)

    Evidence of this bowing to feminist ideology appears in the very issue of the Western Front that contained this editorial. The effect of sexual assault’s fear-mongering is made real by the article titled “New Legislation Addresses Sexual Assault.” Also, a woman’s letter to the editor accused the Western Front of perpetuating “rather sexist views toward men.” The paper also promoted the movie Women Without Men. It seems like every issue of the Western Front has at least one article promoting feminist ideology. After the Columbia report excoriated Rolling Stone, the magazine refused to fire anyone or change any of its policies. Similarly, I suspect the Western Front will learn nothing from this fiasco and continue to pander to women and feminism.

    The Western Front and its editorial board are deep into perpetuating ideological myths, closing down debate on these myths, and distracting attention from their deceit. It’s kind of an odd attitude for a college newspaper to have.


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