Can a publication that’s been around for 47 years be permanently harmed by one article? Can a movement be doubted because of the mistakes from that article?
Those are the questions I’m asking in light of Rolling Stone’s admission that its scathing article about a gang rape on the University of Virginia campus was, shall we say, incomplete. The article itself, published Nov. 19, was so shocking that it prompted the university to shut down operations among all the fraternities on campus, local police began an investigation and the article started a national discussion on sexual abuse on campuses.
The story was that troublesome and statistics have shown that there is a sexual abuse problem on our nation’s campuses. What Rolling Stone failed to do was to attempt to talk with those on the other side of the equation (the accused), which The Washington Post did – only to find out that many of the facts were questionable at best.
For Rolling Stone, I believe its brand (outside of its music reporting, it has been known for not being afraid of publishing hard-edged journalistic pieces that go all the way back to Hunter S. Thompson and up to the recent article on Gen. Stanley McChrystal) will keep it relevant even as many will be wary of its true intentions. It’s true that Rolling Stone is not what it used to be in terms of having an important place in our collective culture, but its brand is strong enough to overcome this mistake long term.
For the raised awareness of sexual abuse on campuses, I have greater worries. This is a serious issue that should be discussed despite Rolling Stone’s misstep. Reports of sexual abuse on campuses are rising up to 50% from earlier this decade with a handful of our largest universities posting shocking numbers.
Now, there is fodder for defendants that those numbers are overblown and that there is no epidemic on our campuses. Of course, who is guilty or not should be proven at court, not by public opinion. But the movement itself has taken the far greater hit from Rolling Stone backing away from the story than Rolling Stone itself.
It will take some time for it to regain traction, and I agree with the UVA student newspaper that said this issue should not be ignored no matter what was true or not true about the Rolling Stone article.
But the hardest work the movement faces has now arrived.