Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right: The Sad Story of Rolling Stone

April 13, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Credit: Rappler.com

My mother used to tell me that two wrongs don’t make a right. Nowhere has this recently proven to be more true than in the case of a Rolling Stone cover article by Sabrina Erdely about the brutal gang rape of a young woman, identified only as Jackie, at the University of Virginia. The article received national attention for its gruesome detail, but aroused enough skepticism that an independent police investigation into Jackie’s story was launched. Ultimately, the investigators were unable to verify the details Jackie’s story as she described them them to Rolling Stone. Indeed, to some extent, her story appears to be misleading, if not out-and-out fabricated. Rolling Stone, embarrassed by their release of such a questionable article, commissioned the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to conduct an investigation as to what went wrong with its reporting. How could the magazine be fooled into running a potentially false story? The investigators found that the article was:

…a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking. The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all.[1]

The report continues:

The editors and Erdely have concluded that their main fault was to be too accommodating of Jackie because she described herself as the survivor of a terrible sexual assault. Social scientists, psychologists and trauma specialists who support rape survivors have impressed upon journalists the need to respect the autonomy of victims, to avoid re-traumatizing them and to understand that rape survivors are as reliable in their testimony as other crime victims. These insights clearly influenced Erdely, Woods and Dana. “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” Woods said. “We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”

This is a story of two wrongs. First, there is the societal ill of rape, which sadly happens way too often on college campuses, often without those who perpetrate the assault being appropriately disciplined. But second, there are also the journalistic lapses in judgment by Rolling Stone, who apparently was so desperate to tell a sensational story that they checked not only their good sense, but their common sense, at the door. When these two wrongs came together, they didn’t make anything right. Instead, they just made a mess.

In reality, there is probably a third wrong here – that of deceit. Insofar as Jackie fabricated, misrepresented, or embellished what happened to her, she did a grave disservice to victims of rape all over the world. If she did tell the truth, I pray that comes to light – and quickly – so that she and Rolling Stone can be exonerated. If she did not tell the truth, I pray she is moved to confess her lies and apologize. There’s plenty of real sexual horror in our world. We don’t need to make up more of it.

Sadly, this whole, sordid affair is nothing less than a bit of empirical evidence of the depths of humanity’s depravity. The horrible reality of rape; the drive of a magazine to be so titillating that it forgets to be truthful; the mysterious and twisted desire of a young lady to tell a horrific story that could be false – there is no shortage of human folly on display here.

One of Jackie’s friends, Ryan Duffin, in an interview with New York Magazine, explained that though he wants to believe Jackie’s story, he has finally decided, “It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, because whether this one incident is true, there’s still a huge problem with sexual assault in the United States.”[2]

I would beg to differ. I think the truthfulness of Jackie’s story does matter. It matters because one sin can never be solved another sin. Rape cannot be solved by deceit. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

My prayer is that any remaining wrongs in this story come to light so they can be corrected, amended, and, ultimately, forgiven. For all that’s gone wrong with this story, that’s the only hope for something to come out of this that’s right.

_________________________________

[1] Sheila Coronel, Steve Koll, and Derek Kravitz, “Rolling Stone and UVA: The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Report,” Rolling Stone (4.5.2015).

[2] Margaret Hartmann, “Everything We Know About the UVA Rape Case [Updated],” New York Magazine (4.6.15).

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