- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Sensational stories about alleged sexual assaults at the University of Virginia and Oberlin College have raised serious questions about how two prominent writers apparently chose to ignore long-standing ethical standards and reporting practices.

Rolling Stone ran a 9,000-word story about a woman who claimed seven men raped her at a fraternity house on the Virginia campus — an article the magazine later found to be inaccurate after other news organizations questioned the facts and reporting techniques. In a book, television writer and HBO star Lena Dunham wrote that a student active in the Republican Party raped her when she attended the Ohio college. That claim also has come under attack, primarily in the New Republic and Breitbart.com.

The author of the Rolling Stone article, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, violated basic standards of journalism when she reportedly agreed to her source’s request that she not interview any of the alleged attackers.

The ethics code of the Society of Professional Journalists says writers should “diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.”

Moreover, the author failed to investigate information provided to her by the source, whose first name was “Jackie.” For example, the fraternity said no party occurred on the date the source told Ms. Erdely she was sexually assaulted.

Erik Wemple of The Washington Post provided his assessment of what should happen.

SEE ALSO: Rolling Stone’s ‘bad journalism’ in U.Va. rape case a setback for victims, senators say

“Anyone who touched this story — save newsstand personnel — should lose their job,” he wrote.

Other stories written by Ms. Erdely have come under scrutiny. Ralph Cipriano, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who covered the sex scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, challenged her story about a young man who claimed he had been abused sexually by priests in Philadelphia. Writing for BigTrial.net, Mr. Cipriano described how the young man, known as “Billy Doe,” continually changed his story.

“Since Billy’s story fit a pervasive media stereotype, innocent victims being victimized by predator priests, it was fit to print,” Mr. Cipriano wrote.

Unfortunately, Ms. Erdely’s errors apparently have not hit home for the assistant managing editor of the University of Virginia’s student newspaper.

“[T]o let fact checking define the narrative would be a huge mistake,” Julia Horowitz of The Cavalier Daily wrote for Politico.com.

Let me put it another way: Don’t let the facts stand in the way of a good story.

SEE ALSO: Rolling Stone quietly alters apology on U.Va. fraternity rape story

Ms. Erdely did not respond to a request for comment.

Ms. Dunham’s recent book, “Not That Kind of Girl,” outlined rape charges at Oberlin. Kevin Williamson of the National Review investigated the claims by Ms. Dunham, the writer and star of HBO’s “Girls.”

Mr. Williamson acknowledged in his cover story in early November that Ms. Dunham let other people describe as rape her sexual encounter with a Republican student named “Barry.” Based on details in Ms. Dunham’s book that Barry had a mustache and wore purple cowboy boots, the National Review writer said it took him only a few minutes to discover who the former Oberlin student was.

“Barry is not a character in a book; he is a real person, one whose life is no doubt being turned upside down,” Mr. Williamson said.

Ms. Dunham’s publisher, Random House, maintained this week that Barry was not the actual name of the alleged attacker and planned to change the book in future editions.

As a result, the rape charges at Oberlin have become as suspect as those at Virginia, underlining how writers should follow long-established principles of accuracy and ethics or face the consequences of potential lawsuits and public distrust.

[Disclosure: I have worked with BigTrial.net and Mr. Williamson.]

Christopher Harper is a longtime reporter who teaches journalism at Temple University. He can be contacted at charper@washingtontimes.com and followed on Twitter @charper51.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide