For the sake of Rolling Stone’s reputation, Sabrina Rubin Erdely had better be the country’s greatest judge of character. On Nov. 19, the magazine published Erdely’s story about a ghastly alleged gang rape at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the University of Virginia. The victim was taken into a dark room in the early weeks of the 2012 school year and raped by seven men while her date and another man provided “instruction and encouragement,” the story claims.

The story landed with tremendous impact, with the university suspending fraternities and sororities until January and a heap of media attention falling on Charlottesville. The alleged gang rape is under investigation by local police.

Asked on a Slate podcast what she cited as substantiation of the claims in the story, Erdely said, “I will just say that I found her story — I found her to be very credible.”

Responses to rape allegations have an ugly history in this country, one in which the accuser’s reputation and credibility end up on trial while the perpetrators emerge unpunished. Reason magazine, for example, asks, “Is the UVA Rape Story a Gigantic Hoax?” That’s a too-strong treatment hidden in the squishy confines of an interrogatory headline. Yet Rolling Stone bears a great deal of responsibility for placing the credibility of the accuser in the spotlight, thanks to shortcomings in its own reporting.

Consider that Erdely didn’t talk to the alleged perpetrators of the attack, as The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi has reported.

When asked repeatedly by Slate whether she’d interviewed the accused, Erdely tiptoed around the issue, issuing evasive answers that never directly resolved the very simple question placed before her. At one point, she belabors her efforts to secure comment from the fraternity’s management, a much less central matter.

This lapse is inexcusable: Even if the accused aren’t named in the story, Erdely herself acknowledges that “people seem to know who these people are.”

If the men were being cited in the story for mere drunkenness, boorish frat-boy behavior or similar collegiate misdemeanors, then there’d be little harm in failing to secure their input. The charge in this piece, however, is gang rape, and so it demands every possible step to reach out and interview them, including e-mails, phone calls, certified letters, FedEx letters, UPS letters and, if all of that fails, a knock on the door. No effort short of all that qualifies as journalism.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog (washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple), where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts for The Washington Post.


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