Journalism Society Calls Out Rolling Stone Editorial Lapses

The Society of Professional Journalists is encouraging staff at Rolling Stone magazine to consult SPJ’s Code of Ethics in the future to avoid mistakes it made in the reporting and editing of its controversial and now discredited article on an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia.

A group of journalists over the weekend threw its support behind a new report that condemns a Rolling Stone magazine article on campus rape as an “avoidable failure.”

The Society of Professional Journalists released a statement commending the report from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism that delved into Rolling Stone’s investigation of an alleged rape at the University of Virginia in 2012.

The article, “A Rape on Campus,” generated significant attention when it was first published last fall, both for its content and potential problems with the reporting of the piece.

“Basic yet critical fundamentals of journalism seem to have gotten lost in the pursuit of a story that fits a reporter’s predetermined narrative or angle,” Dana Neuts, SPJ president, said in a statement.

The Columbia report cited several failures in the reporting of the article, which was eventually retracted and removed from Rolling Stone’s website. Among the missteps cited were a failure by freelance writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely to contact potential key sources and other editorial flaws that led to gaps in reporting.

“The problem was methodology, compounded by an environment where several journalists with decades of collective experience failed to surface and debate problems about their reporting or to heed the questions they did receive from a fact-checking colleague,” the report noted.

Despite retracting the article, Rolling Stone is not planning to fire anyone involved in the  reporting, editing, or fact-checking, according to reports. Neither does it plan to change its editorial process or discontinue working with Erdely.

SPJ, meanwhile, said it was disappointed that “Rolling Stone retracted its story but still does not acknowledge that changes in its editorial practices are needed.” The group also encouraged the magazine to consult the SPJ Code of Ethics in the future to avoid similar mistakes.

“Though adopting the guidelines is voluntary, our organization encourages the code’s use,” SPJ said in its statement. “In this situation, the following code provisions could have guided Erdely and Rolling Stone in their work, perhaps preventing some of the many mistakes made in the reporting and publishing of ‘A Rape on Campus.’”

The University of Virginia chapter of Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity at the center of the story. (Bob Mical/Wikimedia Commons)

Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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