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SPJ Disappointed in Journalistic Lapses Found in Rolling Stone Story


April 5, 2015

Dana Neuts, SPJ National President, 360-920-1737 (PDT), dneuts@spj.org
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Communications Strategist, 317-361-4134, jroyer@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS--- The Society of Professional Journalists commends the work of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in dissecting a controversial story, “A Rape on Campus,” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely for Rolling Stone, of an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house.

Released tonight, the report details numerous failings by Rolling Stone's reporting and editorial team, leading to a story that was largely unverified and contained gaps in credibility that ultimately detracted from the real issue – the negative stigma and culture surrounding reporting sexual assaults on campuses across the country.

“Basic yet critical fundamentals of journalism seem to have gotten lost in the pursuit of a story that fits a reporter’s predetermined narrative or angle,” said Dana Neuts, SPJ president.

In its online report, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism calls the Rolling Stone article “a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable,” citing that “the failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact checking.” The report also said the magazine “set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all.”

In spite of the scathing review, CNN reports that Rolling Stone Publisher Jann Wenner will not take disciplinary action against any of the editors or fact-checkers , nor will anyone be fired, because the missteps were unintentional and not purposefully deceitful. Erdely, a freelance journalist, will continue to write for Rolling Stone.

The report reveals three primary flaws in the reporting:

- Erdely failed to interview the three friends who were with Jackie following the alleged attack, nor did Erdely corroborate information with other potential sources.
- Erdely withheld information when seeking a comment from Phi Kappa Psi, not giving the fraternity a chance to review the allegations in detail or to question potential factual discrepancies.
- Erdely did not interview “Drew,” the alleged ringleader of the gang rape. In fact, Erdely didn’t identify him, and the facts Jackie gave Erdely about “Drew” didn’t check out.

According to Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s investigation, editorial flaws also existed, creating gaps in the reporting, which may have been partially addressed if the Rolling Stone editors and reporter had been more transparent about what they knew and what they didn’t know at the time of publication. The report said Rolling Stone’s editors should have clarified that they didn’t know “Drew’s” real name, and they had not confirmed his existence or gotten his side of the story.

In addition, according to the report, the editorial team should have clarified that the quote from “Randall,” the pseudonym of a friend of Jackie’s, was actually paraphrased from Jackie. Essentially, Erdely and her editors relied on a single source – Jackie – for the story without sufficient verification or corroboration. Instead, the team deferred to Jackie without independent confirmation.

In spite of these failures, the report said “Rolling Stone’s senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems.” Managing Editor Will Dana says he does not think Rolling Stone needs to institute significant changes, but instead to “do what we’ve always done” to ensure this mistake isn’t repeated.

“SPJ is disappointed that Rolling Stone has stained the credibility of journalism by failing to employ standard reporting and editorial practices, such as independent verification and thorough fact-checking. We are also disappointed that Rolling Stone retracted its story but still does not acknowledge that changes in its editorial practices are needed,” said Neuts. “We encourage them to consult the SPJ Code of Ethics to prevent similar mistakes in the future.”

The SPJ Code of Ethics was written to guide journalists and media organizations in their reporting and editorial decision making. Though adopting the guidelines is voluntary, our organization encourages the code’s use. In this situation, the following code provisions could have guided Erdely and Rolling Stone in their work, perhaps preventing some of the many mistakes made in the reporting and publishing of “A Rape on Campus.”

Seek Truth and Report It
• “Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it. Use original sources whenever possible.”
• “Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.”
• “Never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information. Clearly label illustrations and re-enactments.”

Minimize Harm
• “Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.”
• “Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.”
• “Balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to know. Consider the implications of identifying criminal suspects before they face legal charges.”
• “Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.”

Be Accountable and Transparent
• “Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.”
• “Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.”
• “Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.”
• “Abide by the same high standards they expect of others.”

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit spj.org.


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