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Rolling Stone Magazine’s Ethical and Legal Issues Case Study

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Updated: May 9th, 2021

While journalists are called to report news and important events, they sometimes fail to use information appropriately or check the reliability of the information source and is the reported cases are true. Such carelessness leads to the violation of both ethical standards and legal norms accepted in journalism. The case under consideration reflected on the situation when ethics and law clashed. In fact, it is a story of mixing up professional journalism standards, which resulted in taking a famous journal to court.[1] This analysis presents the background for the case, alternative variants of the situation development, outlines the possible solutions and proposes recommendations for the case.


The case involves a well-known magazine Rolling Stone. It is a controversial case that implies an ethical aspect of media as well as a legal one. The issue is that Rolling Stone initiated an investigation of the story about rape at the University of Virginia. Having a desire to examine the situation, the magazine delegated the Columbia University School of Journalism to study the related journalistic processes.

The report provided by the school comprised diverse details of the story and was published. However, immediately after the report was released, Rolling Stone faced the threat of being sued. First of all, the fraternity that became the focus of the story threatened to sue. Secondly, the school dean, Nicole Eramo, who was accused of being indifferent to the problem of the girl, received a damaged reputation of the chief villain in this story and demanded a $7.5 lawsuit.[2] Journalists mentioned that she could have asked for a bigger lawsuit, and her claim could have been satisfied.

Since the report was prepared by a journalist student, the mistakes and misunderstandings could probably not have been avoided. The facts were revealed that the writer did not talk to all the witnesses, these students who claimed to be her friends. Moreover, the fraternity that was accused of rape was not informed about the article, and its members could not express their opinion about their role in the case under consideration.

When Rolling Stone suggested the Columbia Journalism School dean Steve Coll review the published reporting about “A Rape on Campus,” it became evident that mistakes appeared both in the process of writing and editing. Thus, something that was “thought would be a bombshell story, but was ultimately centered around a false narrative”.[3] Finally, it was concluded that there were some problems at different stages of report preparation.

First of all, the writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, did not manage to interview all of the victim’s “friends.” Also, she did not provide the involved fraternity with enough information on the case so that they could comment on it and express their opinion. That is why it was not unexpected that after the release of the report, Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity accused of being involved in a rape, announced its intentions to sue against Rolling Stone and the journalist.

The report provided by Columbia University’s School of Journalism reveals the fact that Rolling Stone did not verify the facts depicted in the article as it was expected to do. Consequently, the magazine was accused of “a serious decline of journalistic standards.” [4] The statement expressed by the fraternity is an illustration of an argument about such significant issues as ethics codes in lawsuits. Moreover, it involves a problem of the conflation of legal standards with professional, ethical standards.

Nevertheless, after it was revealed that the story described in the article was fake, the magazine agreed they went wrong and initiated an investigation of the case.[5] On the whole, it was a tricky situation because “the report examining the conduct of journalists against the aspirational standards of ethics codes is being used in the lawsuits that face a completely different legal standard.” [6] However, the magazine acknowledged the mistake and took responsibility for allowing it to happen. The case is an example of a violation of professional ethics codes and the sample of responsible behavior of a media representative in a critical situation.


In every case involving ethical and legal issues, there is a question of the situation could develop differently and lead to less stressful results. When it comes to journalist practice, it should be guided by both the professional code of ethics and the legislature of the country where the person works. Thus, the Society of Professional Journalists advocates for ethical journalism. It claims that journalists should “take responsibility for the accuracy of their work,” “verify the information before releasing it,” and “use original sources whenever possible.” [7] Moreover, journalists are expected to clearly identify their sources and check their reliability.

Therefore, there could have been no problem at all in case the involved stakeholders could follow their professional codes and demonstrated professional behavior. The possible alternative for this case outcome is as follows. When completing the task and collecting information on the campus, the Columbia University School of Journalism and its representatives could be more careful in their decisions. The article about the rape on the campus should not have been printed unless its reliability and truthfulness had been checked and proved.

Proposed Solutions

There are some solutions that can be recommended in this case. First of all, the magazine should apologize for the publication. In fact, it was done, and Rolling Stone faced the court, which justified the lawsuit for Nicole Eramo. Thus, it responded both to ethical and legal accusations. It was a necessary step to prove that the magazine is a responsible and reliable edition ready to correct its mistakes and reach excellence.

Certainly, the financial question was probably not expected, but the lawsuit was approved by the court and thus was not a matter of further discussions. Another possible solution implies publication of the checked information on the case under consideration. To restore its reputation, Rolling Stone can conduct a new investigation of the case and publish real facts. It is expected to return the trust of its readers and contribute to the image of an honest magazine.

This solution also corresponds to one of the aspects of the code of professional ethics of journalists, which is to seek truth and report it. Generally speaking, the possible solutions presuppose adherence to both legal and ethical standards that were violated in the case. It is expected that more attention to the code of ethics of journalists could have resulted in less serious consequences for Rolling Stone and would not attract much public attention.


The case of Rolling Stone is an example of neglecting codes of professional ethics and the lack of attention to legal aspects of journalistic activity. At the same time, it is a lesson for other media representatives demonstrating wrong journalist behavior. Therefore, some recommendations both for journalists and other parties involved can be provided to avoid the repetition of similar situations in the future.

First of all, it is crucial to check and double-check the reliability of the sources that provide information. In the case under consideration, this step was omitted, which led to undesirable consequences. Thus, it is important to obtain first-hand information in case it is possible and question the real witnesses. At present, many public places are equipped with digital cameras, and if there is a recording of the accident, it can be useful to watch it before creating the article. The mistake of journalists was that they interviewed the so-called “witnesses” and not the girl who was considered the victim.[8]

Secondly, it is advisable to pay more attention to the issues of professional ethics and ethics codes for young journalists. They should be aware that there is no excuse for presenting misinterpreted and intentionally fabricated information. Journalists should be ethical because their activity presupposes influence on people who sometimes are in a difficult situation. Thus, it is a task of a journalist to present information in such a way that no one war is harmed in case it is possible.

Thirdly, journalists should be aware of legal responsibility. the activity of journalists frequently presupposes interference with other people’s private lives, so it is important that a journalist was educated about the possible consequences of excessive interference into private life or making wrong conclusions about people without enough evidence.

Moreover, it is recommended to draw the line between the legal standards and ethical guidelines of journalists. However, it is frequently a problem because the dividing line is not always transparent. While the law provides journalists with freedom of speech, their ethical standards demand being careful in expressions and methods of collecting information. At the same time, other laws restrict the level of interference into someone’s private life, which should also be considered to avoid court appeals.

Finally, journalists should try to publish the information that can be checked and proved to be true. At present, many people still believe what the media say, and frequent publishing of unchecked stories will ruin this trust. Therefore, journalists are responsible for everything they publish and should be careful when selecting the material for publication. In case of a criminal case, the documents should be used to support the evidence of witnesses, and in case a scientific fact is reported, it is advisable to provide commentaries of scientists and some research data.

On the whole, the case is a bright example of professional misconduct, both legal and ethical. Even if the behavior of journalists who wrote the article that became the issue of this case can be justified by the lack of professional experience, the fact that editors at Rolling Stone allowed publishing information without checking is unacceptable. The actions of the people who suffered from the article, such as Nicole Eramo, whose reputation was hurt, and the court decision is guidance for other individuals on how to act in case of journalist’s mistake. Moreover, the case provides an example of a working legal system that effectively resolves conflict situations and makes fair decisions.

Reference List

Chow, K., , 2015. Web.

Coronel, S., Coll, S., and Kravits, D., ‘A Rape On Campus.’ What went Wrong?’ Rolling Stone. 2015. Web.

,’ The Guardian, 2016. Web.

,’ BBC, 2016. Web.

SPJ Code of Ethics, 2014. Web.

Stahl, J., ‘Why Rolling Stone Deserved to Lose its “Rape on Campus” Defamation Case,” 2016. Web.

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1. IvyPanda. "Rolling Stone Magazine's Ethical and Legal Issues." May 9, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/rolling-stone-magazines-ethical-and-legal-issues/.


IvyPanda. "Rolling Stone Magazine's Ethical and Legal Issues." May 9, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/rolling-stone-magazines-ethical-and-legal-issues/.


IvyPanda. 2021. "Rolling Stone Magazine's Ethical and Legal Issues." May 9, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/rolling-stone-magazines-ethical-and-legal-issues/.


IvyPanda. (2021) 'Rolling Stone Magazine's Ethical and Legal Issues'. 9 May.

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