‘A Rape on Campus’ Review Brings Insights

An examination of Rolling Stone magazine's story depicting a gruesome rape at a Univerisity of Virginia fraternity house, which has been redacted, details the difficulty of dealing with sexual assaults.
Published: April 6, 2015

A report on the process behind Rolling Stone magazine’s controversial story ‘A Rape on Campus’ sheds light on the difficulties of dealing with sexual assault cases.

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Steve Coll, now the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, investigated the magazine’s process for publishing the story of a campus rape, which gave a gruesomely detailed account of an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house.

The story became engulfed in controversy when people began to question its accuracy, and the Charlottesville Police Department concluded there was “no substantive basis” to support the victim’s published account. The magazine officially retracted the story with the publishing of the report.

While focusing on the journalistic errors that led to the story, the report details the challenges of dealing with victims of sexual assault. Foremost among those challenges is balancing sensitivity to the victims with the need to verify their story.

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It also talks about the damage that the story did to sexual assault survivors and the perception of people who say they’ve been raped. “The magazine’s failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations,” Coll wrote. In reality, the actual rate of false rape allegations is around two to eight percent, according to a study the report cited.

The report went on to compare specific mistakes by the author and the magazine’s staff with wider journalistic norms to demonstrate the magazine’s failures. Those mistakes included not allowing the accused fraternity to adequately respond; not gathering information independently from the alleged victim to verify her account; considering the university staff an obstacle to getting facts when they are really sources of important information; and misleading readers about information the magazine was not able to attain.

It suggests the magazine ban the use of pseudonyms, clarify the roles of its editorial staff and specify the policies of fact checking.

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