A Lesson on Journalism Ethics

In today’s heated news cycle, even facially flawed assertions become facts through repetition. Vilification and political correctness can muzzle doubters.

In today’s heated news cycle, even facially flawed assertions become facts through repetition. Vilification and political correctness can muzzle doubters.

As a result, that failure of candid, open debate can lead to flawed public policy, rarely more so than today’s fevered coverage of campus rape.

Take, for instance, the University of Virginia’s response to Sabrina Erdely’s November Rolling Stone tale about “Jackie” being gang-raped at a UVA fraternity party. UVA rushed to protect its image by banning fraternity parties and convening panels.

Jackie’s story was repeated endlessly. She became a poster child for all that is wrong in the ways colleges and universities address sexual assault and treat its victims. It’s a rare national news media that isn’t reporting on campus rape but UVA’s reaction reflects, in part, the influence of Rolling Stone with its history of investigative journalism.

The catch is Jackie’s story as told in Rolling Stone might not be true.

For me, the issue is not sexual assault, but the journalism it inspires. Erdely’s reporting left me wondering why Rolling Stone abandoned its editing standards or relied on an accuser as its only source. Similar debacles have damaged other national news media:

•CNN/Time failed to prove that Americans used sarin nerve gas during the Vietnam War.
•CBS and Dan Rather failed to prove that George W. Bush dodged his military obligation in the Texas Air National Guard. •Doubts remain whether Gary Webb’s series in the San Jose Mercury proved a CIA tie to Central American drug traffickers importing cocaine into this country.

The Erdely/Jackie tale is dragging Rolling Stone into this sorry company. It never should have been published; it was a damning one-source story with not even a “no comment” from the men she accused. That ethical breach reflects a secret Erdely/Rolling Stone agreement to not seek such rebuttal or comment from the accused men. However, Erdely and her editors didn’t reveal that until last week.

It was a classic willingness to discard journalism ethics for a story that was too good to be true or information that might undermine the entire endeavor. The reporter and magazine took Jackie’s word because they wanted to believe her. Eric Wemple, in his Washington Post blog, said it best: “For the sake of Rolling Stone’s reputation, Sabrina Rubin Erdely had better be the country’s greatest judge of character.”

Erdely wasn’t. Rolling Stone’s editors weren’t any sharper.

Erdely and Jackie are changing their stories and Erdely’s reputation, as well as Rolling Stone’s, is tattered.

Friday, as Jackie’s tale came under increased scrutiny and the fraternity offered its rebuttal, Rolling Stone crawled back from its policy-affecting rape story. Managing editor Will Dana issued this memo:

“Last month, Rolling Stone published a story titled ‘A Rape on Campus’ by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, which described a brutal gang rape of a woman named Jackie at a University of Virginia fraternity house; the university's failure to respond to this alleged assault – and the school's troubling history of indifference to many other instances of alleged sexual assaults. The story generated worldwide headlines and much soul-searching at UVA. University president Teresa Sullivan promised a full investigation and also to examine the way the school responds to sexual assault allegations.

“Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie's story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her. In the months Erdely spent reporting the story, Jackie neither said nor did anything that made Erdely, or Rolling Stone's editors and fact-checkers, question Jackie's credibility. Her friends and rape activists on campus strongly supported Jackie's account. She had spoken of the assault in campus forums. We reached out to both the local branch and the national leadership of the fraternity where Jackie said she was attacked. They responded that they couldn't confirm or deny her story but had concerns about the evidence.

“In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.”

Where do I start? A single source story, and as Rolling Stone said, you believe her or walk away. All of those confirmations arise from Jackie repeating her allegations. A failure to check it out. Failure to seek all sides to the allegations. Failure to tell readers why fact checkers couldn’t check it out. Failure to be sensitive to defaming a group of young men, just as happened in the media frenzy over allegations of rape by three Duke lacrosse players.


UVA isn’t the first or only campus trying to eliminate what some critics call a “rape culture” where victims are afraid to come forward and where cowardly administrators’ first instinct is to protect the schools’ reputations.

Now, in the name of new sensitivity to accusers, some schools are instituting disciplinary procedures that assume the accused cannot be innocent. This public policy increasingly is provoking a backlash. Faculty and students on some campuses are demanding that all sides be heard fairly or allegations be turned over to police where due process is likelier.

Further complicating efforts to reduce campus sexual violence is the stink of class bias in news media attention. Recall the three Duke lacrosse players falsely accused of raping a hired entertainer at a team party. Add to this the image of lacrosse as terminally preppy (since it was adopted from Native Americans). UVA is another elite school and fraternities often are perceived as privileged, unruly tribes.

Then there are rape accusations against high-profile college athletes; they’re always good copy because they usually involve a failed coverup by school officials and cops.

Not every accusation is valid.

I covered the acquittal of a star UC athlete charged with rape and sexual assault short of rape. Testimony by women who accused him of rape made it clear there was no threat or force. His third accuser said the player forced a pop bottle into her vagina when she fell into his lap in the student union. That didn’t tear her pantyhose, she added. Even the judge had trouble keeping a straight face.

That said, endlessly repeated crappy statistics don’t help the growing effort to confront and reduce the incidence of campus rape and other sexual assaults/harassment. Rather, repetition reflects the inability of most reporters to appraise the validity of the data or survey methods.

Earlier this year, Vice President Joe Biden joined the echo chamber when he cited a seriously flawed study that said 20% of college women are sexually assaulted before graduating. He got the number from the Campus Sexual Assault Study done for the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice. That study generalized to all colleges and universities from responses on two unnamed large public universities.

Two schools cannot be statistically representative. Other obvious flaws which detract from the validity of the statistic involved the sample. The survey relied on 5,446 Web-based responses. That was a minority of the women 18-25 who were polled. Put another way, survey results were based only on women sufficiently motivated to respond to a Web-based questions.

Of this self-selecting sample, 1,073 or 19.7 percent said they’d experienced an attempted or completed sexual assault — rape — since entering college.

"This ‘one in five’ statistic shouldn’t just be taken with a grain of salt but the entire shaker," said James Fox, professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northeastern University, told Politifact.com. “(W)e should be careful not to cite national estimates that are shaky, at best."

CURMUDGEON NOTES:

 • Local art critics should explain how displaying corpses - Mummies of the World at the Museum Center - differs from Thomas Condon photographing corpses in the Hamilton County morgue. The mummy show disinterred bodies meant to be left undisturbed for eternity — is being heavily promoted as a cultural event. “Come see ancient desiccated dead people . . . "  Condon, on the other hand, was sentenced to 30 months for abusing a corpse when posing bodies with inanimate objects. He otherwise left the bodies where he found them in the morgue. Sentencing Condon in 2002, Common Pleas Judge Norbert Nadel saw no redeeming value in the photographs. ''They're not art. They're sick. They're disgusting. They're disrespectful and really the worst invasion of privacy.'' All of that and no national tour, no pricy tickets, no public radio advertising. Sounds like a local story to me.

• No surprise that Cincinnati is hiding its light under a bushel; we’re embarrassed by being ahead of the pack instead of 10 or 20 years behind. Cincinnati’s 2002 community-wide Collaborative Agreement and federal oversight went a long way to resolving accusations of police racial profiling and excessive violence. Today, police reforms make the city safer for cops and civilians. Cincinnati could be a model for cities struggling with profiling and lethal violence against the people cops swear to serve and protect. Except, of course, that would be bragging about innovating and that’s been off the table since Cincinnatians invented floating bar soap. No one, apparently, has contacted national or international news media writing about cities where unarmed Black and Latino men die in deadly confrontations with police. I’ve followed our national and international news media online and if the successes born of Cincinnati’s Collaborative Agreement were mentioned, I missed it. (Matthew 5:15 says in the KJV, “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel - a bowl - but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.”)

• Cincinnati police finally decided that it was no accident when a Mount Auburn child was shot repeatedly in the chest. Terrill Short has been charged with reckless homicide. Initially, police spokeswoman Tiffaney Hardy said, “It appears that this was an accident.” The Cincinnati Enquirer’s initial story reported this with no indication that anyone said “Huh?” I’m still waiting for some less credulous reporter to tell me how that how cops arrived at their original absurd hypothesis or when they realized the killing was not an accident.

• BBC is asking whether it is news when feral Black and Hispanic youths beat a white man to death . . . in St. Louis? Watch for this story to evolve into another partisan talk show attack on the news media. Police say the youths killed a Muslim Bosnian immigrant, Zemir Begic, when he confronted them over beating his car with a hammer. Three youths have been arrested and charged with murder. A fourth is being sought. Some national news media began picking up the Begic story after criticism from conservative talk shows and Internet sites made his racially-tinged murder impossible to ignore. It was another case of Internet energy forcing mainstream news judgment. Before that, Begic’s murder was a local story and police were downplaying the racial angle. Bosnian immigrant community protests were peaceful, in contrast to rioting in nearby Ferguson after a white cop killed a young Black man and it became an international story.

• Try to remember the last time a Cincinnati news medium did anything but a cursory story about the killing of a young Black man. Michael Brown is news only because a white cop shot him. If Michael Brown had been one of the thousands of victims annually of black-on-black homicide, we wouldn’t have heard of him.

• While joining the general hype of fears of riot and looting in Ferguson, MO, NPR’s reporter referred to the breathless wait for the grand jury “verdict.” Grand juries don’t reach verdicts. They decide whether to indict. CityBeat fell to the same confusion, saying a grand jury rarely “convicts” a cop who shoots a Black man or child. Grand juries don’t acquit or convict. Even one of Diane Rehm’s Beltway experts this week on NPR didn’t know the difference between a grand jury and trial jury.

• “Tombstoning” refers to side-by-side newspaper headlines that provoke laughter or dismay. This pair appeared recently in Traverse City's Eagle-Tribune: “Ferguson to undergo mental evaluation” and “Grand jury doesn’t indict Officer Darren Wilson”

• In my latest column, On Second Thought . . . I faulted Rolling Stone for its story of an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia. The story was so full of holes that it should not have been published. I wasn’t alone and Rolling Stone issued an apology and explanation of its flawed reporting, editing and news judgment. Now, Rolling Stone has updated its mea culpa. Rather than wait for my next biweekly column, here is that latest Rolling Stone statement by Managing Editor Will Dana. I’ve included the entire text on the chance you didn’t see the earlier version:

“Last month, Rolling Stone published a story entitled "A Rape on Campus" which described a brutal gang rape of a woman named Jackie during a party at a University of Virginia fraternity house, the University’s failure to respond to this alleged assault – and the school's troubling history of indifference to many other instances of alleged sexual assaults.

“The story generated worldwide headlines and much soul-searching at UVA. University president Teresa Sullivan promised a full investigation and also to examine the way the school investigates sexual assault allegations.

“Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.

“In the months Erdely reported the story, Jackie said or did nothing that made her, or Rolling Stone's editors and fact-checkers, question her credibility. Jackie’s friends and rape activists on campus strongly supported her account. She had spoken of the assault in campus forums. We reached out to both the local branch and the national leadership of Phi Psi, the fraternity where Jackie said she was attacked. They responded that they couldn’t confirm or deny her story but that they had questions about the evidence.

“In the face of new information reported by the Washington Post and other news outlets, there now appears to be discrepancies in Jackie's account. The fraternity has issued a formal statement denying the assault and asserting that there was no ‘date function or formal event’ on the night in question. Jackie herself is now unsure if the man she says lured her into the room where the rape occurred, identified in the story as ‘Drew,’ was a Phi Psi brother. According to the Washington Post, ‘Drew’ actually belongs to a different fraternity and when contacted by the paper, he denied knowing Jackie. Jackie told Rolling Stone that after she was assaulted, she ran into ‘Drew’ at a UVA pool where they both worked as lifeguards. In its statement, the Phi Psi says none of its members worked at the pool in the fall of 2012.

“A friend of Jackie’s (who we were told would not speak to Rolling Stone) told the Washington Post that he found Jackie that night a mile from the school's fraternities. She did not appear to be ‘physically injured at the time’ but was shaken. She told him that that she had been forced to have oral sex with a group of men at a fraternity party, but he does not remember her identifying a specific house. Other friends of Jackie’s told the Washington Post that they now have doubts about her narrative, but Jackie told the Washington Post that she firmly stands by the account she gave to Erdely.

“We published the article with the firm belief that it was accurate. Given all of these reports, however, we have come to the conclusion that we were mistaken in honoring Jackie's request to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. In trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault, we made a judgment – the kind of judgment reporters and editors make every day.

“We should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story. These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie. We apologize to anyone who was affected by the story and we will continue to investigate the events of that evening.”

Mary Koss, a professor of public health at the University of Arizona, told Politifact.com faulted the same Campus Sexual Assault Study. She told Politifact that it "is not the soundest data [the White House] could use."

Yet sloppy statistics repeated ad nauseam by activists and complicit journalists are a shaky foundation for public policy and now we have the White House’s Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and growing pressure on fearful college administrators to just do something.

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