The Center for Public Integrity’s groundbreaking investigation into campus sexual assault is being cited as a model for responsible journalistic practice by a report dissecting the now-infamous Rolling Stone magazine piece on a purported gang rape at the University of Virginia.
The much-anticipated audit, released Sunday night by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, said the magazine’s reporter, editors, and fact-checker had failed to undertake simple measures to verify a student’s account of being raped by seven men at a fraternity on the UVA campus. The report chronicles a host of failures at every editorial level, describing them as “basic, even routine journalistic practice — not special investigative effort.”
“If these reporting pathways had been followed,” according to the Columbia report, “Rolling Stone very likely would have avoided trouble.”
On Sunday, the magazine retracted and apologized for its December 2014 article, “A Rape on Campus,” accepting the audit’s conclusions and adopting its recommendations.
The original Rolling Stone article re-ignited a national conversation about sexual assault on college campuses that has continued to grow since the Center’s investigation into the topic six years ago.
Published in a six-part series starting in 2009, “Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice” — done in collaboration with NPR — showed that campus judicial proceedings regarding allegations of sexual assault were often confusing and marked by lengthy delays. Those who reported sexual assaults encountered institutional barriers that either assured their silence or left them feeling victimized again. Even students found “responsible” for alleged sexual assaults often faced little punishment, while their victims’ lives were turned upside down.
In December 2009, the Center shined a light on how the UVA administration had handled allegations of sexual assault by one of its former students in a 6,500-word story, “Sexual Assault on Campus Shrouded in Secrecy.” The story revealed a campus adjudicatory process shrouded in secrecy, in which victims encountered mysterious disciplinary proceedings, closed-mouth school administrations, off-the-record negotiations, and gag orders that, in some cases, have been found to be illegal.
The Columbia report mentioned the Center’s investigation as a catalyst for reform. The series led the Education Department to strengthen its oversight of how colleges and universities handle campus rape cases, and has helped inspire stricter federal actions on a variety of fronts, including the creation of a White House task force last year.
In the Columbia audit, Kristen Lombardi, a senior reporter at the Center and the lead reporter for the campus-rape series, is quoted explaining the practices that she and her colleagues followed during their investigation — on balancing sensitivity to victims with rigorous reporting, and focusing on institutional accountability, for instance.
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