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Fact-Checking Lessons

Posted: August 4, 9:24 a.m.
by Mackensie Henderson.

On Nov. 19, 2014, Rolling Stone magazine published an article exposing a young female’s personal experience of a horrific campus-related rape at the University of Virginia.

To give a brief synopsis, the article, “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, was comprised of a detailed account of what a rape victim named “Jackie” suffered one night during her freshman year in September 2012.

To Erdely, Jackie was unquestionably a reliable source, as the two were connected through a UVA staff member. However, throughout the seven-interview process, Jackie refused to disclose the gang-rape organizer’s name. Though this concerned Erdely, she had no doubt that Jackie’s story was credible and decided to continue with publication once Rolling Stone fact-checkers validated the integrity of the article.

Nov. 19 came and Rolling Stone published the article, which collected more than two million views.

2745103081_60edf6589f_o“I was shocked to have a story that was going to go viral in this way,” Erdely said in the Rolling Stone Magazine written report by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Once the article was published, Erdely contacted Jackie again to determine the rape leader’s name. Jackie confessed his name but oddly enough could not spell his last name. Anxious, Erdely frantically researched the name given to her, but couldn’t verify the information.

Slate writers questioned Erdely’s article, stating that she should have tried harder to get in contact with this potential gang rape instigator. This was the start of a PR nightmare for Rolling Stone.

Rolling Stone received a lot of backlash from various online publications and from UVA. The fraternity accused of organizing the alleged gang rape plans to sue the famed music magazine, according to a report in April 2015. The unfortunate truth is that painstaking research and fact-checking could have prevented this entire situation.

Day 48/365
Courtesy of Brian Turner (Flickr)

*Learn from its mistake*
In journalism, public relations or any communication-related profession, it is imperative to have credibility and transparency, especially if you are writing about a life-altering issue, such as rape. Public relations professionals can learn from Rolling Stone’s mistake. Here are a few techniques PR pros can use to guarantee credibility in their writing:

1 – Consider the feelings of a trauma victim, but stick to journalistic integrity to ensure that their fragile story is factually accurate. For insightful tips on how to interview an individual who has endured a form of trauma, review the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma’s “Journalism & Trauma” article.
2 – Don’t be lackadaisical with fact-checking. Even the most minute details matter.
3 – Conduct thorough research before your interview. When you have excess knowledge on the topic, you will have better questions to ask the interviewee, and you can easily correct factual errors your article may contain.
4 – If you have questions or concerns, always follow up with your source. Failing to do so may result in a PR nightmare.

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