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Ubiñas: Rolling Stone broke the 'Do No Harm' oath

In trying to protect alleged rape victim, Rolling Stone did more harm.

I'M NOT READY to say that Jackie, the subject of an explosive Rolling Stone story about a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity in 2012, lied. Mostly because, based on everything I've read including some supposed hazy recollections on the part of a traumatized young woman, I don't think she did.

What I am ready to say is that by agreeing not to contact Jackie's assailants, and then running full speed from the backlash, Rolling Stone broke one of the most important ethical oaths in journalism:

Do no harm.

The oath is more commonly associated with doctors. But I've always thought it also applies to journalists who, to use another oath from my line of work, give voice to the voiceless.

That is an enormous responsibility. And part of that responsibility is to make sure you've done everything in your power to tell the story as accurately as possible so that when the detractors pounce - as they inevitably do when someone without power speaks out - the people who've risked everything to share their story have the truth on their side.

It's about due diligence, but it's also about the responsibility journalists have to the people who put their stories - and by extension, their lives - in our hands.

Here's the reality: No matter how much journalists mess up someone's story, we usually get to move on. There's a long line of journalists who fabricated stories without missing much of a beat.

The people who put their trust in our hands don't often have that luxury. I'm going to guess the journalists involved in this train wreck will land on their feet. I'm not so sure about Jackie, or other sexual-assault victims who I hope aren't spooked into the shadows by this fiasco.

If Jackie isn't lying - she may have gotten some details wrong because of the trauma or confusion - I can't imagine what it's like to have a publication you've put your trust in so quickly turn on you.

In a spectacularly insensitive statement, Rolling Stone said it was trying to be sensitive by honoring Jackie's request not to contact the men she claimed organized and participated in the attack.

"We have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced." The magazine later tweaked the apology to read: "These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not Jackie." She's since hired a lawyer.

By all accounts, Philadelphia-based investigative reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely is a pro. Same with the magazine's editors and fact-checkers.

So what's behind such curious editorial decisions? Unfortunately there are scores of young women who have been sexually assaulted on college campuses across the country. They could've told someone else's story. The details would have been different, but the very real issue of campus rape would have been just as disturbing.

Here's what I've learned while doing similarly sensitive stories - sometimes the hard way. You do yourself, your publication and, most of all, the person you are writing about a monumental disservice by not asking the hard, uncomfortable questions - sometimes of yourself: Am I letting a good story get in the way of accuracy and due diligence? Is sensitivity trumping credibility? Will curiously agreeing to anonymity or pseudonyms or, in Rolling Stone's case, not contacting the alleged assailants overshadow the bigger truths?

Often, with such sensitive stories, there's no paper trail, no video. Just the word of someone with no power against the word of people with lots of power and even more people eager to give them the benefit of the doubt because . . . they have money, they're connected. Because the accuser - gasp - has baggage of his or her own, so of course that means he or she must be lying.

"This is what you get when you automatically believe accusers," a glib commenter wrote under one of the dozens of stories dissecting the Rolling Stone piece.

In a letter to student newspaper the Cavalier Daily, University of Virginia junior Emily Clark wrote in support of her former suite-mate Jackie.

"While I cannot say what happened that night, and I cannot prove the validity of every tiny aspect of her story to you, I can tell you that this story is not a hoax, a lie or a scheme. Something terrible happened to Jackie at the hands of several men who have yet to receive any repercussions."

Clark also took offense to Rolling Stone throwing Jackie under the bus by saying that their trust in her was misplaced.

"I feel this statement is backwards, as it seems it was Jackie who misplaced her trust in Rolling Stone," she wrote.

Here's what I think we can all agree on: This is a mess. And unfortunately the damage may well go beyond one young woman and one story.

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel