The disastrous reporting by Rolling Stone in “A Rape on Campus” is sickening for the doubt it casts on the credibility of rape victims and the media.
Rape on campuses and how colleges handle them are timely and important topics. Zeroing in on a real case as a specific example of a widespread problem makes perfect sense.
But the magazine’s lengthy, detailed cover story made a huge splash that ended in a horrible belly flop. The entire piece was retracted and Rolling Stone conceded its failure to follow the basic tenets of reporting.
Oh, that hurts. Journalism’s single most valuable asset is credibility. Without it, nothing else matters.
What supposedly sets established news companies apart from just anyone with a website, a smartphone and a Twitter account is a commitment to seek the truth and report it fully and fairly, to paraphrase the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.
The Code of Ethics (which you can find at spj.org)
states journalists should “take responsibility for the accuracy of their work, verify information before releasing it, (and) diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.”
Those guiding principles apply to newsrooms of any size and sort, in print and online, for dailies, weeklies and magazines. I have tried to live by this code and to lead by example for all of my 37 years in the news business. Journalists adhere to them instinctively. We want to do the right thing; we want to make a positive difference.
And this isn’t just a black mark on journalism.
“The biggest tragedy here: every future story about sexual assault will live in the shadow of doubt cast by that Rolling Stone article,” wrote Maggie Fronk, executive director of Wellspring (formerly Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Services of Saratoga County), in her “Shine a Light” blog
on The Saratogian and The Record websites.
Only 2 to 8 percent of sexual assault claims are found to be false, studies show. “As we read that story it was horrifying, but it wasn’t unbelievable,” Fronk wrote, referring to the original “A Rape on Campus” piece. “Why not? Because rapes like that happen far too often on college campuses.”
Fronk had just seen “The Hunting Ground,” a film about “the epidemic of sexual violence on college campuses and the injustice victims often face when they rely on their college for support and justice.” These stories, Fronk wrote, “are a place to start the discussion on how to change a system that’s not working.”
The stories depend on victims’ willingness to come forward. And the changes must be societal.
No campus is exempt.
In Saratoga Springs, Skidmore College is reviewing its policies in the wake of a recent decision to extend by two years the year-long suspension of a student found guilty of sexual misconduct. The undisputed victim’s decision to go public has drawn widespread attention. More than 1,300 Skidmore graduates reportedly signed an online petition that stated, in part: “The policy should be simple: if you commit sexual violence on this campus, you will be expelled.”
Though it seems unfair to make proclamations without being privy to the details, it is difficult to imagine how anything less than expulsion could be appropriate.
Skidmore is reviewing and revising policies, creating an online anonymous reporting form, working with city police to clarify how local law enforcement can help in a sexual assault situation, and, in the near future, having a trained representative of Wellspring on campus. Other colleges are taking similar steps. Those that aren’t, should be.
Meanwhile, the Rolling Stone fiasco is a wake-up call for newsrooms everywhere to talk about ethics and affirm their commitment to the basics of sound journalism. No challenge facing the news industry is more dangerous than the deadly loss of public trust.