Use the Public Forum

“Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

Justice Louis D. Brandeis

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While a demand for a retraction based on hard evidence or a potent threat of litigation will often be the key to a successful effort to protect reputation, the impact of public exposure of false reporting should not be underestimated. Professional rivalry is a powerful motivator and an experienced investigative journalist can be most effective in reversing the harm caused by false reporting by a rival.

There are many well-documented episodes of an aggressive reporter uncovering a false news story published by a competitor. The deconstruction by The Washington Post in late 2014 of a Rolling Stone article, titled “A Rape on Campus,” by journalist Sabrina Erdely, is probably the best known recent example of this phenomenon. The Rolling Stone piece described in graphic detail a brutal attack on a female undergraduate by a group of male students at a party in a fraternity house at the University of Virginia. The article, which was first published on November 19, 2014 and received instant attention nationwide, also described a pattern of neglect by the University administration in failing to investigate the alleged attack or help the victim. In the days following publication of the story, the University suspended all of the fraternities on the Charlottesville campus, the fraternity house was vandalized, and an associate dean of students who was responsible for handling sexual assault cases received death threats.

As it turns out, most of it was not true. A little more than two weeks after the Rolling Stone article first appeared, The Washington Post published the first in a series of investigative stories under the headline, “Key Elements of Rolling Stone’s U-Va. Gang Rape Allegations in Doubt.”  The Post reported that there had been no party at the fraternity house the night of the alleged attack, no one with the name of the claimed principal attacker had ever been a member of the fraternity, and several witnesses denied having made statements that had been attributed to them in the Rolling Stone piece. The story quickly unraveled. Within a few days, Rolling Stone issued an apology and acknowledged “discrepancies” in the story.

The publisher of Rolling Stone engaged the Columbia University School of Journalism to conduct an independent investigation. When Columbia issued its report, less than five months after “A Rape on Campus” was first published, it characterized the article as, “[A] story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking.”  That same day, Rolling Stone fully retracted the story and removed it from the magazine’s website. Civil defamation suits were filed against the magazine and the author, Sabrina Erdely, by the fraternity that had been accused, several of its individual members, and the UVA associate dean who was named in the piece. That litigation continues.

The Rolling Stone episode dramatically illustrates how competing media outlets can provide an effective avenue for exposing false allegations disguised as investigative reporting. Professional journalists—particularly those associated with well-established media outlets – do not give competitors a pass when they get their facts wrong, and they will be aggressive in reporting false stories. When you have the facts and the evidence, a good investigative journalist may be your best ally in protecting reputation.