Rolling Stone debacle shows how hard, and needed, sex assault reporting is

Many sexual assault activists worry that fallout from the Rolling Stone story will put a chill on the coverage of sex crimes. But transparency and thoroughness in reporting can lead to better outcomes, media experts and others say.

Steve Helber/AP/File
Students participating in rush pass by the Phi Kappa Psi house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., Jan. 15, 2015.

The report from the Columbia Journalism School on the discredited Rolling Stone article about an alleged campus rape at the University of Virginia reads like a treatise on how not to conduct journalism. "The [journalistic] failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking," says the Columbia report, which was commissioned by Rolling Stone.

As fallout from the story continues (on Monday, the fraternity at the heart of the discredited rape allegations announced plans to pursue legal action against Rolling Stone), many sexual-assault activists worry that it will put a chill on the coverage of sex crimes – journalism that activists say is crucial to bringing rape out of the shadows and addressing it.

"I think the worst-case scenario would be that journalists don’t want to cover this topic," says Tracy Cox, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC).

But the authors of the Columbia report itself say they hope their critique of the Rolling Stone story is taken as a lesson to reporters and editors about how to do better, rather than as a discouragement to journalists against wading into such a fraught topic.

Ms. Cox and media experts urge reporters to take the time needed to gather an array of facts and talk to a range of individuals. And they emphasize the importance of transparency – which includes disclosures about what reporters don't know and why. Also, no matter how sensitive journalists may be to a source, they can't suspend all skepticism, media observers say.

"It would be a really unfortunate outcome if journalists backed away from doing this kind of reporting as a result of this highly visible failure, because this is important work. And it’s hard work," said Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School and one of the authors of the report, in a press conference Monday. "This kind of reporting environment, this kind of subject – it’s a new frontier for serious accountability journalism.... This is an area where we have got to have a conversation amongst ourselves about how to get better."

The Columbia report cites numerous instances where appropriate journalistic procedures should have raised red flags with the Rolling Stone story. A prime example: Editors should have insisted that reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely contact the three friends whom "Jackie" said she met with after the alleged rape.

"We want [journalists] to see that despite the complexities and difficulties [in reporting about sexual assault, it] can be done well, can be done accurately, and can have widespread positive impacts," Cox says. "Through their reporting, they’re telling victims' stories. They can help to contribute to widespread societal change."

Cox and media experts agree that there are many ways reporters can step into the murky territory of sexual-assault reporting – where reporters may be relying on non-adjudicated testimony and trying to find a delicate balance between being sympathetic to someone dealing with trauma while still exercising due diligence – and still avoid the mistakes that Rolling Stone made. The NSVRC has worked with the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., which teaches writing and media ethics, to develop a free online course for journalists who write about sexual assault.

"If a story isn’t quite where it needs to be, it’s OK to hold it and flush out those facts and do more interviews," says Cox. "It’s better to have the right story than go with something that’s wrong and in the end causes more harm than good."

One major problem with Ms. Erdely's story, note the authors of the Columbia report, may simply have been the way she approached it initially – her determination to find an illustrative example that corroborated the story she wanted to tell, and her decision to go with the one that seemed the most lurid and shocking, even though other, more verifiable accounts existed.

"When journalists write stories, they usually start looking for one or two things when looking for examples or anecdotes. One of the things we look for is the thing that represents a larger reality. You can’t just pick out the easiest one to report," says Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar at Poynter. Reporting about something like campus rape, or how institutions respond, may indeed call for occasional anecdotes to illustrate the story, he adds, but "I think it also calls for tools now available to us like data analysis."

The Columbia report also talks about the problem with the reliance on pseudonyms – something Rolling Stone did for "Jackie" as well as the three friends and the date who she claimed instigated the gang rape.

"Pseudonyms are inherently undesirable in journalism. They introduce fiction and ask readers to trust that this is the only instance in which a publication is inventing details at its discretion," says the report, which goes on to suggest that Rolling Stone consider banning them or allowing them only in very rare instances.

"There’s this tremendous tension now between anonymity and verifiability. And this particular example of journalism malpractice has made it a lot harder," Mr. Clark says.

Clark isn't convinced that granting automatic anonymity to sexual assault victims – which many media outlets routinely do – is a best practice, either for journalism or for addressing sexual assault.

"Are you going to try to humanize [the victim] by giving her or him a false name? Are you doing that to protect their privacy? If you do that, will you be tempted to change other details to create a disguise that protects the person?" he asks. "All these moves we make to protect the vulnerable are a kind of form of the journalistic equivalent of witness protection, but they’re also a gateway drug for fabrication or exaggeration."

Cox at the NSVRC disagrees, noting that privacy is a huge issue for many victims and a reason they may not come forward, and that some fear for their safety. "I don’t think abolishing all pseudonyms is the answer. I think you have to do it on a case-by-case basis," she says.

Ultimately, media observers say, a lot of the Rolling Stone problems can be avoided with proper transparency.

In certain cases, it may be impossible for some details to be corroborated – but when that's the case, the lack of corroboration should be made clear, the Columbia report says.

"Transparency is a more important virtue than ever in journalism," says Clark. "I think there was so little transparency in the Rolling Stone story that it should be a harsh reminder of what happens when we’re unwilling to tell our readers what we know, how we know it, and even more importantly, what we don’t know. And why we don’t know it."

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