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​Phi Psi is right to sue

A lawsuit would be beneficial not just for the fraternity but also for journalism

Monday, the University’s chapter of Phi Kappa Psi announced its decision to take legal action against Rolling Stone magazine. In a statement, the chapter stated it plans “to pursue all available legal action against the magazine.”

Such legal action will probably rest on a defamation or libel claim — that in its failure to properly fact-check its article “A Rape on Campus,” the magazine defamed the fraternity (the legal avenues fraternities and their members can pursue have been explored in depth). It would be hard to argue that Sabrina Rubin Erdely, in her portrayal of the University’s chapter of Phi Psi, did not defame it. And suing a magazine that has defamed you is a logical step. But more important than what damages the fraternity may be owed is why this step matters for everyone else.

After the Columbia Journalism School’s review came out Sunday, Will Dana, managing editor of Rolling Stone, announced that all those who worked on Erdely’s piece would continue to work for Rolling Stone — including Erdely herself. Rolling Stone is not facing serious consequences in the aftermath of its egregiously bad reporting — as far as we know, its subscriptions and page views have not fallen; no individuals are being held accountable; and, though the Columbia Journalism School’s review is fairly damning, it is hard to know whether the magazine’s reputation will suffer long-term damage.

This is not to say the magazine cannot ever again be treated as a reputable source of news. But the failures of this article are extreme. The most disheartening failure is that survivors of sexual assault may fear reporting or that their stories will be met with disbelief (a problem that predates this article but was exacerbated by it).

After Rolling Stone failed its readers so miserably, it must be clear both to that magazine and to all credible news sources how to approach reporting on sexual assault — something for which the Columbia Journalism review provides guidelines. But Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post excellently sums up why a lack of accountability for Rolling Stone is, in his words, “terrible for journalism.” After seeing no accountability in the response to Rolling Stone’s failure, why would readers trust the journalists reporting on these issues at all?

For journalism, proper reporting on sexual assault and for sexual assault survivors themselves, Rolling Stone needs to see consequences beyond a comprehensive review of its mistakes. This brings us back to Phi Psi’s lawsuit. The lawsuit is appropriate for what the fraternity went through as a result of this article — but it also appears to be one of the only ways left to hold this magazine accountable.

Some may worry that a lawsuit would only create more fear for sexual assault survivors when coming forward with their stories — that not only will these stories be met with disbelief, but they could also be met with legal ramifications. But the legal ramifications here are for Rolling Stone, not Jackie; and anything that can reinforce proper journalistic standards will, in the long run, be better for everyone. If other news media put out stories similar to “A Rape on Campus,” it is in everyone’s best interest for those stories to be correct. And if news media see possible litigation as a result of incorrect stories, there is a much higher likelihood they will avoid the mistakes Rolling Stone made.

For Phi Psi, this lawsuit is right because of the damages the fraternity sustained. But it is right more generally because of the need for journalistic accountability in this situation.