Media organisations should never function as hatcheries for lies. When it happens they must be brought to account. Rolling Stone magazine took a rape fabrication and brought a world of hurt to the University of Virginia. One telephone call. Just one simple query would have begun the process of discrediting a false, inflammatory accusation.
The editor of Rolling Stone approved and published a piece that can best be described as foment journalism. The article, ‘A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA’, was written by contributing editor Sabrina Rubin Erdely. Was there a desire to instigate, stir up and promote violent sentiment? It worked. After the release of this fabrication of a gang rape on Greek row, the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house suffered vandalism. The backlash from UVA alumni was also fierce. The article also created a limbic system response from UVA President Teresa Sullivan. She suspended all social activities for campus fraternities and mandated a vigorous investigation. Virginia’s governor, Terry McAuliffe, stated that he was “deeply disturbed”. Yeah. A world of hurt. The article harmed multiple innocent lives.
A gang rape occurring within a university student body is big news. But it is only news if the facts and forensic evidence are in agreement with statutory law regarding the same. A female student hatched her own egg in 2012. She fabricated an allegation of a gang rape but refused to seek medical care and submit to an exam that would secure forensic evidence. She refused to report her rape to the police. She then solidified her legendary tale by speaking to others in cozy settings regarding her experience. If the lie is big enough or you repeat it long enough — scandal!
Two years later, Rolling Stone picks up the scent that a gang rape occurred at UVA. The organisation nestles down with the fabrication, incubates it with the warmth of their passion and hatches an unfertilised egg. Who, what, when, where, how, and why are primary tools for investigative reporting. A misplaced trust in their contributing editor allowed them to take a false allegation to print. Rolling Stone showcases journalism at its worst. They engaged a breach of professional ethics regarding basic journalism standards. Professional journalists abound. A dedicated cadre takes facts and presents them. But there is always a substandard group that takes a hiatus from the corridors of professionalism. We must drive them from our ranks. These individuals are dreamweavers. These love spinning stories and creating a non-existent fantasy landscape with their sophistry. Facts? Pffft! Imagination trumps fact check.
What political agenda was afoot with this exhibit of yellow journalism? Crafting scandal-mongering sensationalism whilst ignoring a legitimate fact check bequeaths us with print that emerges from the catacombs.
One phone call. The dishonesty would have begun to unravel with a phone call. The Washington Post employs better news hounds. It did not take them long to strip the Rolling Stone team butt-naked for public view. After a few phone calls and a peek at campus event calendars the better team had enough real puzzle pieces of evidence to go to press with their own story. They were able to refute the gang rape fabrication. They accomplished this by using the toolbox of professional journalists.
I hold to a standard for reading. If a headline is interesting I will scan the article. But if the writing does not capture my gaze by the third paragraph my interest takes me elsewhere. It took only three paragraphs to understand the underlying genre used by Ms Erdely. She deploys a romance novel genre to report a rape. Romance novels titrate sensuality steadily upward. I find her choice thoroughly distasteful. There is no place for this incongruous writing style when reporting a sex crime. Let me give you one example. And yes, this is just one example from the first three paragraphs. “‘Want to go upstairs, where it’s quieter?’ Drew shouted into her ear, and Jackie’s heart quickened. She took his hand as he threaded them out of the crowded room and up a staircase.”
Her heart quickened? Now we are in the dreamweaver’s net. Our imagination is captured. The author walks us through the remainder of the dream. It is disgusting. In real life we take our own nightly dreams and file them as sheer entertainment. If it is a nightmare, we designate it as horror. Investigative reporting not corroborated by fact should receive the same designation. Dreams confirm nothing.
This is not the first time Sabrina Erdely has written a poorly investigated piece. The Daily Mail released their own news hounds into the field. On December 12, 2014, they released a stunner. The author of the UVA article had previously reported on another discounted hoax, that of a “sexually abused altar boy named Billy”. Reports are leaking that Ms Erdely also crafted fabrications for Philadelphia magazine with generous use of pseudonyms and an absence of independently verified facts. I am unable to verify the aforementioned. But we are definitely observing the downfall of a rogue journalist. She deserves it.
The Rolling Stone article serves as a reminder. Read all information with a critical eye. Does the journalist speak the truth? Does the article cause you to seek out additional research or does it make you react in a visceral manner? There is a place for strong reaction in journalism but, minus verified facts, do not waste your emotional reserve.
Rolling Stone magazine boasts a total circulation (paid and verified) of 1,470,813. Median age of the readership is 35 years. The audience demographic sports a Caucasian majority with strong socioeconomic markers for college education, home ownership and enviable standard of living. The organisation can afford to hire seasoned investigative journalists. It is also deserving of an editor with an ethos of best business practices. UVA should consider their legal options.
The writer is a freelance journalist and author of the novel Arsenal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org