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The Power of the Media

by on December 8, 2014

When I first read the Rolling Stone story, “A Rape on Campus,” detailing Jackie’s story as a survivor of a brutal gang rape at The University of Virginia, I felt like I was reading a nightmare. It took me about 45 minutes to read the story, and no matter how uncomfortable it made me, I kept reading. I kept reading because I knew it was something I was supposed to read. It was the type of Journalism we should all strive to do; journalism that gives a voice to the people, journalism that makes a difference.

And then I found out about the factual errors.

Rolling Stone recently released a statement about how some of Jackie’s story may not be true. Rolling Stone did not try to reach out to her alleged rapists, and it has now come out that there was no fraternity event on the night that Jackie says she was raped and that her alleged attacker may not belong to the fraternity she originally stated. Now no one knows what happened for sure.

The factual errors themselves are horrendous. As a journalist, when you are working on a story like this, you have to consider every angle. You have to consider the implications of your piece, and what would happen if you had a factual error. You have to ask for people to check, double check and triple check your work. You have to make sure your sources are reliable and that you hear from everyone involved.

But that’s not what bothers me most about this piece. What truly bothers me is that people don’t even realize the implication this story will now have on women. You can’t deny there is a prevalent rape culture in our society, where people make rape jokes on a constant basis and our first response when a girl is assaulted is to claim that she’s a liar or that she was asking for it. Only a very, very small percentage of alleged rapes are actually because someone is lying. But that’s what people focus on. They focus on the lies, they wrongdoing and the deception. Women have to deal with the fear of being assaulted throughout their lives, and for those who are, it may feel nearly impossible to come forward. Now with this article out, all people can focus on are the lies. Now every rape case will be questioned, and every victim will be further scrutinized. In a Slate article about the story, Caitlin Flanagan who has been investigating fraternities for the Atlantic said, “If this turns out to be a hoax, it is going to turn the clock back on their thinking 30 years.”

And this all comes back to the power of the media.

As journalists, we have the power to pick and choose what goes into our stories, what to report on and who to reach for a comment. And with this Rolling Stone story, we see exactly what can happen if we don’t try to cover all the bases. This story had the power to bring change, to bring to light a problem in our society that needs to be fixed. But with factual errors, it just brings more doubt. It’s amazing to think how much power we can have journalists, power to give people a voice and power to make a change. But we may not even realize the extent of our power until we get something wrong.


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