How Rolling Stone and Samantha Rudin Erdely Can Redeem Themselves

Having spent part of my 35-year career as a journalist and the other half as a public relations practitioner, I watched the University of Virginia rape story unfold with interest and then alarm.

Getting conned by a source is every journalist's nightmare.

It has probably happened on some level to every reporter. I once had a source exaggerate a fact. I had no reason to question the fact. Pressed for time, I used her quote in my story, and learned the next day that she had lied to me. She called my editor. I had the quote in my notes. I later learned that she was a woman with many problems.

I wish I could say this was early in my career, but it was about halfway through my job as a newspaper reporter.

Samantha Rubin Erdely, the author of "A Rape on Campus," received bad information from a young woman we know as "Jackie." It appears Jackie was probably not gang raped at the Phi Kapp Psi fraternity on Sept. 28, 2012.

She may have been sexually assaulted at another time and place. Some of her friends say something happened to change Jackie. But so many details did not pan out, and were essentially left unverified by Erdely and Rolling Stone. Read the Columbia School of Journalism investigative report on the rape story here.

Here's how Rolling Stone might redeem itself and work to regain journalistic credibility:

  • Fire all staffers associated with the story and do it now. 
  • Replace them with journalists with integrity, perhaps writers and editors who have studied and written about ethical issues.
  • Make a commitment to strict policies and procedures that result in solid, well-vetted stories.
  • Write about ethics in journalism. Write about ethics in communication. Become an expert in ethics. Look at the Washington Post and its rigorous coverage of the Janet Cooke fiasco.
  • Reshape the magazine so that it is regarded as more than a music journal.
  • Use social media to report what RS is doing to regain credibility.

Erdely might recover her reputation by:
  • Taking one for the team and ending her association with Rolling Stone.
  • Admitting her mistakes and telling us what she has learned from them.
  • Seeking additional training in her profession, perhaps attending an ethics-in-the-media workshop or conference. This is not a one-time only step: Erdely needs to keep her ethical skills sharper on a regular basis.
  • Communicating about her experiences. Being visible with them. The road to redemption will not be an easy one, nor will it be smooth.
  • Becoming a visible advocate for ethics in journalism. Visible is the key word. Her story is not getting out there, probably because attorneys for RS have urged her to keep quiet.
  • Avoiding stories about rape, college, etc., and focusing on stories that can be easily verified. Erdely will probably never again be able to use a fake name for any sources.
  • If these are not acceptable steps, then Erdely will probably want to seek another career. I feel for her, because journalism truly does, in the words of my first newspaper editor, get in your blood.

I was accused of bias once, and my newspaper received a letter that made me seek a beat transfer. It was not easy, but it was the right thing to do. I don't think I was biased at the time, and my transfer request was made only because I wanted to spare my employer more grief. Of course, I was not writing on a national scale. I was small potatoes in the world of journalism.

Every reporter will face this at sometime. How it's handled is the key to survival. 


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