Fraternity Responds to Rolling Stone Review, Legal Analyst Weighs In
Rolling Stone's bungled reporting of an alleged sexual assault at the University of Virginia left a wide path of victims, including other rape victims, UVA's reputation, and the fraternity at the center of the false allegations.
Phi Kappa Psi announced Monday they plan to pursue all available legal action against Rolling Stone (see press release below). The fraternity says Rolling Stone's "reckless reporting" ostracized them and cast their fraternity as the iconic symbol of a troubling issue.
NBC29 legal analyst Lloyd Snook says proving their case in court will be difficult. A group can only sue if the group itself, not just some of its members, were libeled and Snook says in the Rolling Stone article, there wasn't enough to prove that.
“Sometimes people will bring a claim that they don't reasonably expect to prevail just because it has an intimidation value. ‘You don't want to have us go public with this do you?' But now Rolling Stone has already gone as public as they can be,” he stated.
Snook says a lawsuit could actually hurt the fraternity When a suit is filed, any other claims of sexual assaults at the fraternity would arguably become relevant.
According to Snook, individual members of Phi Kappa Psi wouldn't have much of a case in court either. He says none of them were called by name in the article and there's not enough specific information to identify them.
Snook says that if individuals of the UVA community, like Associate Dean of Students Nicole Eramo, wanted to file a lawsuit against Rolling Stone, they would have a difficult time as well. He says that's because the article didn't include hard facts stating individuals did something wrong. It was more based in opinion that the reported rape should have been dealt with differently.
Snook says the university itself doesn't have grounds to sue because the article didn't say anything libelous about UVA.
“A Sad Example of the Decline of Journalistic Standards”
UVA's Phi Kappa Psi Responds to Columbia Journalism School's Review of Rolling Stone Article
Charlottesville, Va. (April 6, 2015) – After 130 days of living under a cloud of suspicion as a result of reckless reporting by Rolling Stone Magazine, today the Virginia Alpha Chapter of Phi Kappa Psi announced plans to pursue all available legal action against the magazine.
“The report by Columbia University's School of Journalism demonstrates the reckless nature in which Rolling Stone researched and failed to verify facts in its article that erroneously accused Phi Kappa Psi of crimes its members did not commit,” said Stephen Scipione, President of the Virginia Alpha Chapter of Phi Kappa Psi. “This type of reporting serves as a sad example of a serious decline of journalistic standards.”
The Rolling Stone article viewed by millions fueled a court of public opinion that ostracized Phi Kappa Psi members and led to vandalism of the fraternity house. According to the Columbia report:
“Rolling Stone's repudiation of the main narrative in "A Rape on Campus" is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking. The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine's editors to reconsider publishing Jackie's narrative so prominently, if at all.”
While the reporter and Rolling Stone editors chose to defer to a single source, the Columbia report points out that Erdely and editors failed to even check areas that did not conflict with her requests.
“Erdely's reporting records and interviews with participants make clear that the magazine did not pursue important reporting paths even when Jackie had made no request that they refrain. The editors made judgments about attribution, fact-checking and verification that greatly increased their risks of error but had little or nothing to do with protecting Jackie's position.”
As the national media descended on the school to cover the misguided story, news outlets cast the fraternity house as the iconic symbol of this troubling issue. The intense and comprehensive media coverage conveyed these falsehoods to hundreds of millions of people worldwide. To this day, images of the fraternity house continue to be used by news organizations to cover this issue on other campuses, despite the conclusions of the Columbia report and despite findings by the Charlottesville Police Department that there is no substantive basis to support the account alleged in the Rolling Stone article. According to the report:
“The particulars of Rolling Stone's failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail.”
“Clearly our fraternity and its members have been defamed, but more importantly we fear this entire episode may prompt some victims to remain in the shadows, fearful to confront their attackers,” said Scipione. “If Rolling Stone wants to play a real role in addressing this problem, it's time to get serious.”
Rolling Stone Magazine admits its staff engaged in reckless behavior while covering this story, yet the magazine refuses to take any action against those involved in reporting the story or address needed changes to its editorial process. The reporter in question not only failed to apologize to members of Phi Kappa Psi, but doesn't even acknowledge the three witnesses she quoted in the article but never interviewed. This is a clear and sad indication that the magazine is not serious about its journalistic obligations leaving the door open for equally irresponsible reporting in the future.
Recently, the Charlottesville Police Department formally cleared the Virginia Alpha Chapter of the Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity of all sexual assault allegations stemming from a Rolling Stone article. The fraternity is still waiting on the conclusion of the investigation into multiple incidents of vandalism that occurred at the chapter house in the wake of the article's publication.
Both the Virginia Alpha chapter and Phi Psi's national organization adhere to a strict zero tolerance policy in regards to sexual assault. Phi Psi is committed to sexual assault prevention through its support for and participation in organizations such as the student-led “One in Four,” and by requiring at initiation all new members take the “It's on Us” pledge. The chapter was the first on Grounds to sign the updated Fraternal Organization Agreement implementing new,stronger protocols to improve the safety of all students and our members remain committed to setting a positive example for the University and Charlottesville community.
For more information on the Virginia Alpha Chapter of Phi Kappa Psi and the national organization, visit www.phikappapsi.com.