November 25, 2015

A Word of Caution to those who Write: Lessons from the Rolling Stone Debacle.


It’s been a year since Rolling Stone magazine published its infamous “Rape on Campus.”

For those who are unaware of it, here it is in a nutshell:

The article, written by acclaimed journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdley, centered around fan alleged, brutal gang rape endured by a student known only as “Jackie” at the University of Virginia. The article was graphic to say the least. (Amongst the claims was that Jackie was sexually violated by man wielding a beer bottle.) Even more disturbing were the claims that the university routinely covered up sexual assaults and discouraged rape victims from reporting their rapes for fear that the school’s reputation would be damaged.

While the article included other victims’ stories, Jackie’s was the centerpiece. Shortly after it was published on the magazine’s website, the article went viral and was met with outrage and anger. However, in the weeks that followed, doubts were cast on the truthfulness of Jackie’s story.

Reporters from the Washington Post as well as the local police could find no evidence that a rape ever occurred. Eventually, the story collapsed, the article was later retracted and then, following an investigation by The Columbia University School of Journalism, it was held up as an example of all the things not to do as a journalist. While time is said to heal all wounds, it doesn’t seem to be the case here.

As it happens, I live within walking distance of the University of Virginia and can say that it appears those wounds are far from being healed.

Currently, there are three lawsuits against Rolling Stone magazine and Erdley from individuals who claim their reputations were damaged by the piece including UVA Dean Nicole Eramo, who said in court papers that her “sterling reputation [build over 18 years] as a fierce advocate and supporter of sexual assault victims was destroyed” as a result.

The story should serve as a wake-up call for anyone who calls themselves a journalist, blogger, non-fiction writer or anyone who claims that their mission is to seek the truth and share it with others.

I don’t know any of the players in the article. I won’t attempt to say what was going through any of their minds. However, based on interviews she gave before the article was retracted, I believe that the author acted with the best of intentions and was on a mission to expose the very real problem of rape on college campus and the lengths that some campus administrators will go to cover them up, lest it hurt the reputation of said schools. By all accounts, it seems like she believed Jackie and felt her story needed to be told.

While I was upset by the mistakes made by Erdley and the staff of Rolling Stone, part of me could also relate or at least understand how it happened.

As a blogger who writes mainly about my own personal experience, it may appear that I have nothing in common with the above and that I don’t have to worry about these things when I am writing a piece. However, I do. I don’t exist in a vacuum, and I have shared many deeply personal things that have involved others. Although I admit that writing about such things has been liberating, my main reason for sharing any story is to help others or inform them that they’re not alone in various situations. For example, I wrote at length about an abusive relationship I had with a man whom I suspected to be a narcissist, because I know others who have been in that very situation themselves.

However, I was careful as to what I revealed in my writing. Even though I was telling my version of the truth, which I believed to be grounded in reality and had evidence to back it up, I still had to keep in mind that this person is still very much alive and has family. I had no desire to ruin his life nor was I seeking revenge in my writing. I actually held back a lot of details lest they be used to identify him, and I am not a superstar blogger by any stretch of the imagination.

Perhaps if I was writing for a huge, international publication like Rolling Stone I would have held back even more.

The bottom line is: whether one person or a million people read a piece, it is important that it’s as truthful and factually accurate as possible, and it is important that someone that we look at the bigger picture—once a piece is published, it is out there forever. Will you stand by it forever?

While we are all human and make mistakes, the mistakes made in the Rolling Stone article went beyond a slight error and the worst thing is, there were controls in place to make sure this didn’t happen, in the form of fact checkers and editors. However, the ball was dropped, and the lasting effects of that damage are still being felt today.

Therefore, it’s important that all writers or would be writers learn from the lessons of that debacle, especially in these days of both declining newspaper and magazine sells and an overall cynicism of everything that is reported.

Back in 1839, the writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton was the first to say, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Nearly 200 years later, that is still true and perhaps even more true today since the internet has made so many of us writers and opened the way for our words to reach further than Bulwer-Lytton could ever imagine.

We should all remember these words the next time we put pen to paper to fingers to keyboard.



The Truth About Good Journalism.


Author: Kimberly Lo

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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