FROM ETHICS TO DOXXING IN .25 SECONDS
The December issue of +Rolling Stone
magazine features an article that has come to the forefront of discussions online recently. The article, written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, focuses on University of Virginia's silencing of sexual assault victims and downplaying of its Title IX investigation, with the story of a young woman's harrowing assault and subsequent experiences as its central narrative. The magazine identified the young woman simply as "Jackie."
After the Rolling Stone
article appeared last month, the +Washington Post
published a follow-up picking apart details of the central narrative (http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/u-va-fraternity-to-rebut-claims-of-gang-rape-in-rolling-stone/2014/12/05/5fa5f7d2-7c91-11e4-84d4-7c896b90abdc_story.html
). It quickly became evident that Erdely had not done her due diligence in corroborating any aspects of Jackie's story.
The revelations prompted Rolling Stone
to release a statement (http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/a-note-to-our-readers-20141205
), which said in part: "In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story."
They have since edited that statement, acknowledging that it was Rolling Stone's
failing, and not their source's. As Libby Nelson explains at Vox (http://www.vox.com/2014/12/5/7342461/rolling-stone-rape-fail-jackie
): "If you are going to expose a traumatized 20-year-old to the judgment of the entire world with a story that many people don't want to believe is true, you owe it to everyone -- to your readers, but especially to her -- to make sure it is unimpeachable. It's not just damage control for your publication or your personal reputation. It's to protect the person who trusted you." Rolling Stone
failed Jackie. And then, the inevitable happened: Jackie was doxxed (http://jezebel.com/vile-journo-releases-unconfirmed-name-of-uva-victim-j-1667943035
(It took no time for the conversation to go from ethics in journalism to doxxing women. I'd be surprised if anyone was surprised.)
But the ethics question begins before Jackie was doxxed, with Rolling Stone
itself. The original feature acknowledges that Jackie asked to be removed from the story: "Jackie said she asked Erdely to be taken out of the article. She said Erdely refused and Jackie was told that the article would go forward regardless."
It seems to have become standard procedure to tell women who are at risk from this type of exposure that they have no choice in a story, that they can either talk to the journalist and have a hand in controlling their story or that the story will be told without them, whether they like it or not.
We saw this with +Grantland
's piece on Dr. V's putter (which, you'll remember, didn't answer the question of whether the putter actually worked, focusing instead almost entirely on her life and leading to her suicide, http://slantist.com/transgender-status-as-fraud-the-real-grantland-narrative/
) and again with Matter, when they sought to profile Shanley Kane in the guise of writing about Model View Media (https://modelviewculture.com/pieces/internet-famous-visibility-as-violence-on-social-media
I realize UVA's history of inaction in cases of sexual assault is in the public interest, unlike the other two stories, but Rolling Stone
had numerous sources they could have developed into the central narrative -- some of which were out. They didn't need
Jackie's account. They went for it because it was a sensational lede. They went for it despite her fears that it would endanger her.
And now it has.
Worse, they didn't do their due diligence, and have since allowed Jackie to become collateral damage. The editor's initial apology that threw Jackie under the bus is a disgrace.
I'm not saying that Chuck Johnson isn't responsible for doxxing Jackie; he is. But if we're going to talk about ethics in journalism, we need to begin with this toxic idea that stories are more important than the well-being of the people directly affected by them.
This applies equally to the Washington Post
which originally wrote "The Post
determined that the student Jackie named is not a member of Phi Kappa Psi and had never met her in person," only to later change that statement, without acknowledgment to "The Post
determined that the student Jackie named is not a member of Phi Kappa Psi." (http://wonkette.com/568485/jackie-is-lying-so-we-can-all-stop-talking-about-rape-now
"Minimize harm" comes after "seek the truth and report it," but it's no less important. Rolling Stone's
story could have been told without exposing someone who had misgivings about being a part of it from the beginning to the nightmare engendered by this subsequent doxxing.
Their failure has turned an otherwise important piece about a school with at least 38 officially reported sexual assaults in the past year, numerous sources, statistics and studies into a circus, and the damage done to their source is incalculable.