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Opinion The Rolling Stone rape scandal: When subjects come before readers

Denise Balkissoon is a Toronto writer and editor-in-chief of The Ethnic Aisle. She is on Twitter @Balkissoon.

I met one of the sweetest people I've ever interviewed when her son was on trial for allegedly building bombs in his basement. She made me lunch at her home, hugged me outside the courtroom, and despite her own stresses noticed my brand new wedding ring.

The problem was this: I wasn't sure if her son was guilty. He held all of the cards in our interactions, deciding when to write me letters from jail, or call me collect so we could talk. I liked him, too, but I knew that my assessment was incomplete. His parents, though, were total dolls, in real life. I didn't want to rebuff their kindness; I also didn't want them to feel deceived if I eventually cast their son in a poor light.

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I often interview people in tough situations, and I believe that empathy is part of my job. I genuinely care about many of them, which is why I think many feel able to open up to me. But time and again, I come back to a piece of advice that an editor gave me when I was starting: Remember, she said, your service is to your reader, not your subject.

This week, the Columbia School of Journalism released a 13,000-word report detailing the failings of a story published in Rolling Stone magazine last fall, about a supposed gang rape by fraternity members at the University of Virginia. Written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the story was the most popular non-celebrity article ever to go up on the magazine's website. It also fell apart almost immediately.

The harrowing story of "Jackie," who claimed her life had been destroyed by a sexual assault at a frat party, was just too sensational to be true: Suspecting as much, reporters and media critics from the Washington Post to the Poynter Institute quickly began to detail the piece's errors and Ms. Erdely's failings. It was damning.

As summed up by Columbia: Ms. Erdely failed to interview the friends Jackie said she had told about the attack immediately after it happened. She didn't give the fraternity the full picture of the accusations when she asked them for comment. Worst of all, Ms. Erdely didn't try very hard to track down the man who Jackie said led her into a drunken trap.

Before and after the Columbia analysis, both Ms. Erdely and Rolling Stone tried to pin the blame for the story on their empathy for someone they thought was a rape victim. "I allowed my concern for Jackie's well-being, my fear of re-traumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts," Ms. Erdely wrote in a statement released on Sunday. So yes, she's saying, she forgot about the reader, but because she was blinded by her concern for the subject.

Um, no – the person Ms. Erdely put at the centre of the story was herself, the reporter. One of the story's biggest flaws was in focusing on what Columbia journalism dean Steve Coll called a "select illustrative case" during Monday's press conference. From the very beginning, Ms. Erdely asked campus organizations to help her find what Mr. Coll labelled an "emblematic, dramatic" tale: One that tied campus rape, drunken frat parties, and predatory men into one neat, horrific package.

She didn't have to. By her own admission, Ms. Erdely had plenty of other interviews that she could have woven into a story. And by her own admission, the decisions not to seek out sources who could corroborate or refute Jackie's narrative were made piece-by-piece, as Jackie seemed increasingly likely to disappear if the story did not run.

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What might have been best for Jackie was to excuse her gently from her obligations as a source, free to deal with whatever did happen to her privately. There was still a story to be told. But that patchwork, less buzzy narrative probably didn't seem like it would be best for Ms. Erdely, who for a brief period soared on the high of her career.

Which brings me to the person, or people, most neglected here: the readers. At the press conference, multiple questions were posed about who at Rolling Stone should be fired, or whether Ms. Erdely's career could ever recover. Left ignored was a major section of the Columbia review, which considers how to approach reporting on sexual assault in the future.

It's important stuff, on how to balance sensitivity for survivors with the verification needed for trustworthy journalism. It discusses how to corroborate victims' stories, how to hold institutions to account, and how to know when the story isn't happening – when to walk away. Because Ms. Erdely didn't do that, her article has become an infamous tale of an untrustworthy rape accusation, with all of its important truths about UVA's alleged history of brushing aside verified claims of sexual assaults.

As readers, we don't know any more about this painful, delicate subject matter; we might even be less likely to trust what we read about it in the future. As people, we're nowhere closer to solving an insidious problem. The fault for that lies not with the subject, but the publication, and the reporter.

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