Rolling Stone: no apology can undo the damage they have done

Protesters carry signs and chant slogans in front of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia, ...

Protesters carry signs and chant slogans in front of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia, on Nov. 22, 2014.

There are a number of lessons to be learned from the Rolling Stone story about a gang rape at University of Virginia, but the one most necessary will probably be most ignored by the media, if only because it is an object lesson in their own failure.

If you've not yet heard about it, Rolling Stone published a long form article about the prevalence of sexual assault at American colleges and the endemic failure of college administration to believe and support the victims or take action against the perpetrators. The article led with one woman's account of being viciously gang raped at a fraternity party. It was a gut-wrenching story, graphic in its horrific details and in the victim's inability to take an action in the aftermath of the attack.

The article incited rage and protests at the University of Virginia, thousands of comments and stories from other women who had experienced sexual violence at UVA and been similarly ignored by the university administration. It became fodder for discussion all over the world. The source was Rolling Stone, a magazine with a long history of credible investigative journalism, and the topic is one that has been under discussion for months. It's something that was, and should have been, taken very seriously.

BACKTRACKING: Rolling Stone has quietly changed its apology on a rape story to take full responsibility.

BACKTRACKING: Rolling Stone has quietly changed its apology on a rape story to take full responsibility.

However, as anyone familiar with the media and the internet would have expected, the push-back started immediately. And it wasn't just the the lunatic fringe disputing the claims made in the article. The Washington Post picked it up, conducted a full investigation of the details recounted in the article, and found a number of discrepancies. The date, the building, the fraternity and the description of the attackers provided to Rolling Stone were questionable at best, completely inaccurate at worst. The Post also reported that the woman begged the reporter, Sabrina Erdely, not to contact any of the alleged attackers and, at one point, attempted to withdraw from the story. Rolling Stone ignored all the most basic tenets of credible journalism and published the story anyway.   

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As soon as it became obvious that there were problems with the story the managing editor of Rolling Stone immediately resiled from the article. But he did so in a way that appeared to abrogate all responsibility and imply that the woman had fabricated the entire story. Essentially, Rolling Stone realised they had committed a grave error so they exposed the subject of an article about how terribly rape victims are treated to global condemnation, in vain attempt to hide from their own mistakes.

Their mistake was not in commissioning, writing or publishing an article about rape and the disgraceful way victims are treated by organisations with power over the victims and perpetrators of such crimes. That story must be told, over and over again until some genuine change occurs.

President of the University of Virginia student council, Jalen Ross, during a news conference. Mr Ross called the ...

President of the University of Virginia student council, Jalen Ross, during a news conference. Mr Ross called the Rolling Stone article '?wake-up call'? for the university. Photo: AP

Their grievous error was in using a sensationalised personal story to garner outrage (and clicks) without making any effort to understand or make allowances for the effect that sexual violence has on its victims. The most basic google search will tell you that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a common, if not universal, response to violent rape and a quick skim through Wikipedia shows that memory loss, time distortion and inability to articulate details of the event are some of the hallmarks of PTSD. It's not unreasonable to expect that anyone researching and writing an article about sexual assault would be aware of this. But Rolling Stone, with their resources, experience, and history is, and should be, held to a much higher standard. To publish such details without making any effort to verify them was unspeakably irresponsible.

Rolling Stone must also have known that the reaction would immediately focus on the woman they identified as the victim and her terrible story. They couldn't have not known that such an article, in a magazine with a global readership, would have an impact on this traumatised young woman that she could not possibly have foreseen. The only conclusion one can come to is that they ignored the entirely predictable outcome because the desire to sensationalise the article with such a salacious story outweighed their duty of care to the woman herself, the people who have been wrongly implicated by her account of events and every other victim of sexual violence who will now be afraid that any misstep in their recollection will lead to unilateral shredding of their character and experience.

Journalists like to take ourselves and our profession very seriously. We are supposed to be fearless truth-seekers, our job is to dig and push and search for information not readily available to the general public, to uncover abuses of power and shine a harsh light into dark corners where the powerless are unable to speak for themselves. Taking such action on behalf of victims of sexual violence and further abuses by the power structures that seem to focus protecting rapists rather than their victims is well within our prevue. But while it is our role to investigate and report on the failings of the legal system it is absolutely not our role to replace the legal system. Trial by media is abhorrent under any circumstances. But particularly in cases of sexual violence, which has such traumatic outcomes, the media cannot take unverified information from people unable to understand the effect of publishing such details and use them to sensationalise accounts of serious crimes and the failure of organisations responsible for addressing them.

Regardless of what happened to the woman in the Rolling Stone article, and it's unlikely that we will ever know the truth of it, she was identified in the original piece, and in many of the follow up pieces. For the rest of her life she will be the woman who made false accusations of rape and if any element of her story is true, as at least some of it appears to be, it is unimaginable what she must be going through under such harrowing public scrutiny.

The fraternity and the boys who were wrongly identified through her story, the thousands of women who struggle to recall the details of their own rapes or who suffer because of an unfounded belief that false accusations are common, and the activists working so hard to effect change in how sexual violence is dealt with have all been unforgivably damaged by Rolling Stone's egregious errors. Their failure to adhere to the most basic requirements of their profession is breathtaking in its scope and culpability, but whatever effect is has on Rolling Stone's future, the effect on all the victims of their article is going to be far worse and much longer-lasting.

Rolling Stone have since clarified their apology about the article and recognised that the error was theirs, not the woman of whom they took such disgraceful advantage, but no apology they can offer that can undo the damage they have done. And no journalist or media outlet should forget the lessons of the destruction they've wrought in so many lives.

Follow Jane Gilmore on Twitter: @JaneTribune 

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