How Does it Feel When Your Story’s Blown

After the publication of a faulty report involving campus rape, Rolling Stone magazine’s credibility as a legitimate source for news has been severely compromised.

In November, the magazine published a story on a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house. The story detailed the account of a female student — referred to as “Jackie” — who claimed that she was violently raped while at a frat party in 2012.

The accuracy of Jackie’s story was almost immediately under question, and Rolling Stone sought a third party — the Columbia School of Journalism — to examine the legitimacy of their reporting.

What did the Columbia School of Journalism’s report conclude? Rolling Stone’s story was inaccurate, and the gang rape never occurred.

Jackie turned out to be an unreliable source. And before publishing her story, Rolling Stone’s reporter Sabrina Erdely neither attempted to corroborate the claims by speaking to other sources close to Jackie nor obtained the identity of the men who were accused of the rape.

We can only speculate as to how this journalistic failure occurred. Perhaps Rolling Stone magazine eagerly wanted to capitalize on society’s recent fascination with campus rape and the ugly side of Greek Life organizations, getting a bit too hasty upon hearing Jackie’s claims. Their false article did resonate with the public, after all — garnering more than 2.7 million views.

Or perhaps Rolling Stone was not merely concerned with bolstering their popularity, but rather had an honorable purpose in mind when publishing Jackie’s story. Maybe the magazine wanted to use this story as a way to shine light on a very real problem — sex related crimes occur on America’s college campuses.

Rolling Stone magazine sought out a compelling narrative as opposed to simply reporting the news, and this narrative turned out to be inaccurate. Regardless of the publication’s intent, the consequences of running an inaccurate report remain the same. And, sadly, Rolling Stone will not be the only entity to experience these consequences. While the magazine’s reliability will appropriately suffer, unfortunately, so too will the success of interest groups trying to raise awareness of sexually related crimes.

That’s because when fabricated or exaggerated stories regarding rape are broadcasted, the legitimacy of authentic rape stories may be called into question. As the Columbia School of Journalism’s report indicates, Rolling Stone editors “had hoped their investigation would sound an alarm about campus sexual assault and would challenge Virginia and other universities to do better. Instead, the magazine’s failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations.”

In actuality, false rape allegations account for merely 2 to 8 percent of all rape allegations, according to the Colombia School of Journalism’s report.

What’s more, Rolling Stone magazine is not the only source to inadequately report on rapes — it’s merely the latest to do so. A few years ago, for instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study that grossly exaggerated the frequency of rape, indicating that in 2010 alone approximately 1.3 million women were raped and another 12.6 million fell victim to sexual violence.

An opinion piece published by the Washington Post explains that the CDC’s numbers are “wildly at odds with official crime statistics” and that these numbers were found “by defining sexual violence in impossibly elastic ways and then letting the surveyors, rather than subjects, determine what counted as an assault.”

This same opinion piece concludes that the CDC’s faulty numbers may have been the result of a desire to draw attention to a genuine problem. “That is an understandable but recklessly misguided conclusion,” the piece states. “Faulty studies send scarce resources in the wrong directions; more programs on sexism, stereotypes and social structures, for example, are unlikely to help victims of violence.”

The lesson to be learned, then, is that news organizations and other supposedly objective sources must place the truth before their desire to tell a compelling story or their desire to combat a problem. Because neither Rolling Stone magazine’s article nor the CDC’s report on rapes did anything to alleviate the problem of sex related crimes; they may have, instead, exacerbated this problem.

Rolling Stone magazine certainly learned this lesson. In an apology for his publication’s failure, Will Dana, the magazine’s managing editor, wrote, “Sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses, and it is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward. It saddens us to think that their willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings.”