Ethics Observations On The Columbia Journalism Review’s Report On Rolling Stone’s False UVA Gang Rape Story

So I guess democracy is in big trouble then..

So I guess democracy is in big trouble then..

The Columbia School of Journalism was tasked with delivering the final verdict on the already thoroughly discredited Rolling Stone story “A Rape on Campus,” which first ran Nov. 19, 2014. The report, which was published yesterday, could not be more critical or devastating to the publication’s reputation and credibility. The one positive conclusion about Rolling Stone that the report documents is that the magazine cooperated fully with the investigation. In light of everything else Rolling Stone has done in this indefinably awful instance of atrocious and unethical journalism, that compliment is like praising a serial killer for leading police to the bodies of his victims.

The news media this morning is full of punditry on the CSJ report, none of it kind to Rolling Stone, so I will confine any new commentary here to the following 10 observations Ethics Alarms has already discussed the matter and related ethics issues extensively.

1. Upon receipt of the CSJ report, Rolling Stone finally took down and retracted the story by Sabrina Rubin Erdely. The story has been on the magazine’s website since mid November, and it has been universally identified as unreliable, misleading and false before the month was over. Why was the piece still up almost five months later? What the reporting of the Washington Post and others demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt was that the story was based on unsubstantiated allegations and terrible reporting practices sparked by the reporter’s ideological agenda and her own biases. Once a news article is found to be so sub-standard that it should never have been published, that means it need to be un-published,  and does not belong on a news source website, unless it is under a banner stating: “Retracted and Discredited.”

2. While the Columbia report added some new details and had the name of a university on it, its findings added little to what had already been reported elsewhere. The CSJ’s proper role was to examine the lack of professional and ethical journalism policies and procedures that led to this fiasco, and to make recommendations to prevent similar abuses of the First Amendment from occurring. The fact that the article itself was indefensible did not need confirmation.

To me, it looks like Rolling Stone used the investigation to stall, delaying accountability as long as possible.

3. That said, the degree of incompetence and sloppy journalism detailed by the report is shocking, even in a time when unethical journalism practices are becoming  the rule rather than the exceptions. For example, one of the quotes in the original article attributed to a fraternity member was in fact a reported quote from  “Jackie,” the alleged rape victim, and was never confirmed with the supposed speaker himself. That’s pure hearsay, and there is a reason why such statements are not allowed as evidence in court: they are completely unreliable. Reporters aren’t supposed to write that “he said” something when in truth “she said he said” it. If they do, it’s a lie.

4. Constitutional law expert Eugene Volokh believes that the negligence of the magazine is sufficient to support a successful libel suit.


5. There is no ethical reason not to publish “Jackie’s” name. She isn’t a rape victim; she’s a false rape accuser, and a dishonest news source. Back in December, before the full rottenness of the “Jackie” story had been revealed, Slate’s Hanna Rosin condemned efforts to identify her, saying that doing so would be “a significant setback for the cause of encouraging women to report sexual assaults.” No, it would be a a significant setback for women who falsely report sexual assaults. A system that protects the “Jackies” is a system in which accountability and responsibility are being rationed, and unfairly.

6. Rolling Stone says that nobody connected with this debacle will be fired or even reprimanded. Let me repeat that, in case you fell off of your chair before you finished reading it: nobody connected with this debacle will be fired or even reprimanded.Thus the magazine rejects the ethical value of accountability completely. The report just published shows that reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely and several editors were dishonest, biased, incompetent, and apparently either unaware of basic journalism ethics and best practices or uninterested in following them. They need to be fired. They need to be fired more than Brian Williams needed to be removed as NBC’s anchor; more than Martin Bashir had to be ejected from MSNBC; and more than Anthony Weiner had to resign from Congress. Erdely, in particular, is like a commercial airplane pilot who crashed a plane full of people because she wasn’t quite clear on how to work the landing gear thingy, or because she decided to fly blindfolded on a bet. She is completely untrustworthy. There is no rehabilitating her. The editors who allowed her story to run are complicit, and equally incompetent. Anyone in the chain of responsibility from Erdely to Managing Editor Will Dana have to be booted out before anything appearing in Rolling Stone should be regarded as more reliable than the fake stories in The News Nerd.

7. If the writer and editors had any integrity, they would have resigned already. The fact that having embarrassed the magazine so thoroughly by their unprofessional and unethical conduct, they have not resigned is itself proof that they are deficient in honesty, loyalty, and trustworthiness.

They should be fired for not resigning.

8. Rolling Stone founder and publisher Jann Wenner, in an interview with the New York Times, blamed “Jackie” for manipulating the magazine. A competent news organization is not that easily manipulated. The reporter didn’t check the facts, and editors didn’t check the reporter. That’s not manipulation. That’s incompetence. Wenner is claiming that his publication is a victim.  I wish Wilford Brimley could be magically transported from “Absence of Malice” to explain to him what’s wrong with his version of journalism. (This scene, the climax of the movie and one of my favorite ethics clips of all time, is not on the web, as far as I can find. Somebody should fix that.)

9. The whole incident has signature significance: a trustworthy news organization simply doesn’t publish stories this bad, not even once. If there was any doubt, the fact that Rolling Stone’s staff feels that this was just a regrettable mistake and not symptomatic of a larger problem with the magazine’s policies and culture proves the point. Look at this excerpt from the CSJ report:

Yet Rolling Stone‘s senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems. “It’s not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don’t think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things,” Dana said. “We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.” Coco McPherson, the fact-checking chief, said, “I one hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter.”


10. The final ethics verdict here: Rolling Stone is an untrustworthy news source. Until there has been a complete overhaul and housecleaning, with Erdely and the editors who enabled her ejected to find employment with The National Enquirer (if it will have them), anyone who believes anything appearing in the magazine is a gullible fool.


Sources: Rolling Stone, Washington Post, Washington Examiner 1, 2; New York Times

13 thoughts on “Ethics Observations On The Columbia Journalism Review’s Report On Rolling Stone’s False UVA Gang Rape Story

  1. It’s not as though this was the first time that Rolling Stone had flaunted the basic proscriptions of ethical journalism. What’s amazing to me is that any credible source or discerning reader would have lent them any credence whatsoever on their unsupported word. Hopefully, that tendency is now ended. Even the Huffington Post (as I noted this morning) has lashed out at RS over this. Not that HuffPo is much better, mind you, but it’s the nature of sharks to savage a wounded fellow!

  2. Ughh. Actually, they’ve got a tradition of some pretty good journalism. But, that said, I find it very hard to disagree with any of your points here. You can’t ride on coattails if you have so forcefully cut them off yourself.

  3. It doesn’t surprise me that RS isn’t firing anyone. This sort of lying and truth-bending has been their MO for a very long time. Asking them to police their own is like demanding that the Onion fact-check more carefully.

  4. While driving to the Post Office this morning, I heard part of NPR’s interview with Will Dana, and this hack was actually chuckling when responding to questions about their mistakes (read “total lack of journalistic integrity”) in this report. No doubt it will be excused as nervous laughter, but he sure sounded juvenile and totally un-serious. Love the Wilford Brimley reference; that’s one of my favorite movie scenes.

  5. “I one hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter.”

    I suspect that this is true. Their procedures might have been fine. What they seem to be admitting is that they ran a story that was against their own standards because they were ideologically behind the story. It also suggests that they are willing to do it again.

    “Slate’s Hanna Rosin condemned efforts to identify her, saying that doing so would be “a significant setback for the cause of encouraging women to report sexual assaults.” No, it would be a a significant setback for women who falsely report sexual assaults.”

    After going through this over and over again with false rape accusations, it is abundantly clear that there are no feminist organizations that have a problem with false rape accusations of men having their lives destroyed in the media or prison because of it. Anytime an outrageous false rape allegation surfaces, the same arguments appear I am waiting for the justification that “Well, this allegation was false, but it helps with the cause of sexual assault awareness, so it isn’t that bad”.

  6. Just saw a news story on this very report, and apparently the fraternity in question is planning to file a libel suit against RS. Go, Greeks!!

  7. They’re articles were comically biased to begin with. Just the titles of half of them should be enough to turn off anyone looking for objectivity.

    • Their expose on Stanley McChrystal stood up well to what had to have been rigorous pushback. They weren’t always hacks.
      I see this as more a decline in standards, or hubris, than always a hack paper.
      That doesn’t mitigate Jack’s critique, which I think is valid.

      • Hey Charles ! I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to reply to you last Thursday. I had a mid-term this morning, and I found out last Wednesday that I have another one THIS Wednesday. In crisis mode. Hopefully I’ll get a breather this Thursday.

  8. Guess I haven’t been paying attention for the last forty or so years. Rolling Stone? A legitimate news source? Huh? Didn’t it start out as a rock and roll broad sheet? The Dead Head’s Bible?

    What a joke.

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