Rolling Stone Magazine Backs Off a Tarnished Story, But Not Competely

Image: "A Rape on Campus" (Rolling Stone)

Rolling Stone is walking back a controversial article, titled “A Rape on Campus,” which described an alleged gang rape of a woman during a University of Virginia fraternity party.

The magazine’s journalistic credibility is being called into question while women’s groups are saying it's a setback for the cause of encouraging sexual assault victims to come forward.

The story took a new twist last week when The Washington Post ran a story that found some discrepancies in the woman's account.

That led Rolling Stone to publish a note casting doubt on the original article.

“We published the article with the firm belief that it was accurate. Given all of these reports, however, we have come to the conclusion that we were mistaken in honoring Jackie's request to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account,” said Will Dana, managing editor of Rolling Stone. “In trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault, we made a judgment—the kind of judgment reporters and editors make every day.

He added: “We should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story. These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie. We apologize to anyone who was affected by the story and we will continue to investigate the events of that evening.”

But Rolling Stone is taking a lot of heat for the apology. According to The New York Times, the (above) note to readers initially said that Rolling Stone’s trust in Jackie was “misplaced” — which some read as criticizing Jackie and undermining her story.

As the case unravels, it may prove a cautionary tale for communicators on how to contain the damage when the story turns out to be wrong.

If an apology is forthcoming, make sure you don’t jump the gun. You first have to gather all the facts and see if the timing of the apology is justified or whether it makes more sense to hold off and amend the reaction to include an apology and the steps the organization plans to take to prevent the same problem from repeating itself.

At the same time, PR executives have to convince the boss—in the case of the Rolling Stone debacle, owner and publisher Jann Wenner, who has declined to be interviewed—that “no comment” in the face of a growing crisis only makes a bad situation worse.

Communicators also have to as transparently as possible explain any legal repercussions of a crisis and what action, if any, will be taken against those accused of getting things wrong.

Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1