Rolling Stone’s ‘mistrust’ in source reflects every journalist’s fears

Posted by Jenny Krane

Yesterday, police investigating the alleged gang rape on University of Virginia’s campus suspended their investigation after finding no evidence to support the accuser’s claim. Jackie, the victim of the alleged rape, was aided in telling her story by an in-depth piece by Rolling Stone.

Two weeks after publishing the article about Jackie’s rape, Rolling Stone release a letter to readers claiming their trust in Jackie’s story was ‘misplaced.’ There were discrepancies in Jackie’s story, but Rolling Stone took full responsibility for publishing an incomplete and inaccurate article.

This investigation speaks to the fears of every journalist that has invested time and trust in an article. The original piece in Rolling Stone ran 9,000 words and was based on Jackie’s now discredited account of a gang rape. While the suspension of the investigation of Jackie’s rape does not render her story completely false, this question of accuracy has led some readers to question the integrity of Rolling Stone.

Editors and writers are faced with the challenge of whether to trust the credibility of a source in every article published. Unfortunately, Rolling Stone made the wrong call in trusting Jackie’s complete story without investigating the accusation. This one mistake on Rolling Stone’s part exhibits the dangers of neglecting to fact check all information published, personal or professional.

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8 responses to “Rolling Stone’s ‘mistrust’ in source reflects every journalist’s fears

  1. What troubles me most about the discredited article is the potential of rape victim’s voices not being heard. I feel like this blunder could discourage victims from telling their story. I think it is probably difficult to do a story on rape with so little solid facts. Either way, retracting 9000 words was probably a huge blow to the writer and the editors.

  2. This backlash is especially difficult because of the sensitivity of the subject. Not only will this discourage other rape victims to speak out about their own experiences, but it will be hard to get Jackie to speak out again to uncover the full truth. In a time where a lot of rape accusations are discredited, it’s hard to hear that a 9,000 word article in a credible publication has been discredited as well.

    Do you know if the writer was fired from this? Has he or she spoken at all about this issue?

    • As far as I can tell, neither the writer or the editors involved were fired for this article, but the writer is a freelancer. She has not been heard from since November, when the story’s accuracy was starting to be questioned.

  3. I definitely agree that this was a major setback in terms of setting an example on accurate reporting of rape and other sensitive topics, especially since there has been so much media attention lately about rape, on college campuses, Title IX, etc. As journalists, I think we have to take this as a reminder that the importance of fact checking, cross-referencing and having adequate sources cannot be stressed enough. And as I mentioned above, we need to realize that we are setting an example: for other publications, for our readers and for people who might wish to come forward and share their stories.

  4. Please note that I acknowledge the horrendous and traumatizing thing that (probably) happened to Jackie, and am disappointed that we don’t know the story from her. Like Kelsea said, something like this could really discourage others from opening up about harassment and rape stories.

    I have another thing I want to bring up: compare this situation to the Brian Williams/NBC scandal. As far as we know, the writer/editors of the 9000-word story have had no repercussions, and haven’t even been scolded really for this “mistake.” I’d like to think that Rolling Stone and NBC have the same level of credibility and popularity, and I wonder why there is such a big difference in the way the two instances are being/have been handled. Thoughts?

    • I think the reaction was different because the circumstances were different. With the Rolling Stone article, a letter to readers was printed to inform them of the mistake. This seems like a fairly open, honest thing to do; as far as I/we know, the story truly was a mistake, not an attempt to generate buzz around a fictitious story. With the Brian Williams scandal, though, there is evidence of a cover-up that lasted for years. It wasn’t a mistake, it was a deliberate lie created by Williams and seemingly covered-up by NBC. It makes me, and probably many news-junkies, super uncomfortable to know that lies were purposely told. That is far more disturbing than a mistake, and warrants a more dramatic reaction.

      • I definitely agree that the repercussions were harsher for Brian Williams because he deliberately told the public something that he knew was untrue, but we, as journalists, are supposed to tell the truth. It’s up to us to make sure we know what we’re saying is absolutely true, through fact checking, etc. so I’m not sure if I agree that the punishment should be lesser for a mistake. To be honest, Brian Williams’ lie doesn’t have as big of an impact as this mistake could have, if it turns out that other rape or assault stories are being discredited as a result of this mistake.

    • Really interesting comparison, thanks for bringing this up!

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