On Sunday night, Columbia University Journalism School deans Steve Coll and Sheila Coronel released a report on their investigation of how Rolling Stone came to publish a largely fabricated story about a rape at the University of Virginia. At a press conference at Columbia Monday afternoon, the two addressed topics they hadn’t covered in their nearly 13,000-word report, published simultaneously on the websites of Rolling Stone and Columbia Journalism Review.
Some of the problems the report uncovered may be specific to Rolling Stone, and not necessarily emblematic of industry-wide problems. For instance, the Rolling Stone fact-checker raised some concerns with Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s reporting, but she could have conceivably been more insistent or pushed back harder. “Fact-checking can only be effective if checkers feel empowered to question editors and reporters who are senior to them,” Coll said. But Rolling Stone fostered “a newsroom culture where there didn’t seem to be much discussion and debate about editorial decisions.” That’s certainly not the case at all magazines.
And while pressure to get things up as fast as possible has been responsible for plenty of errors in journalism, Coll and Coronel don’t think time pressure was the culprit here. Coronel pointed out that Erdely spent six months working on the story. “She wasn’t anxious about how much time this was taking her,” Coll said. “It wouldn’t have been that disruptive to take another month or six weeks.”
But some of the failures here should be able to convey lessons for other reporters. Following the formula Erdely used–choosing one dramatic anecdote to illustrate a larger issue–can be risky. The reporter may be tempted to look for a story that proves any pre-existing conceptions. “There’s a cautionary tale about the relationship between the selection of this illustrative narrative and the underlying assumptions,” said Coll. “If a story fits into a prevailing narrative,” said Coronel, “You should be even more skeptical.”
They said Rolling Stone and Erdely were cooperative throughout the investigation; it was Rolling Stone that reached out to Columbia in the first place, when the story began to unravel. “They told us they wanted this to be a teachable error,” said Coll. Whereas larger news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post have conducted investigations into their own failures internally, “Rolling Stone was in a position where they didn’t have the capacity to do this in-house.”
Coll and Coronel said they spent six or seven hours with Erdely. “She cooperated fully and professionally,” said Coll. “She answered all of our questions.” Coronel recalled that Erdely “nearly broke down” when she described the moment she realized Jackie had been lying. “It was very painful for her,” said Coronel. “I think more painful than all the other things that had been written was the feeling that she had been betrayed by a source she had trusted and had invested a lot of time and emotional energy in.”
If this is really meant to be a “teachable moment,” Rolling Stone shouldn’t have removed the original piece from its website. It still exists in print, of course, and can be found online through the Internet Archive’s “Wayback Machine”–but readers shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to find it. Coll said Rolling Stone came to the decision to take down the story without consulting Columbia. “You wouldn’t want to lose the artifact of the story as a subject of research or scholarship,” he said.
Whether the original piece is hard to find or not, Erdely’s problems are far from over. On Monday afternoon, UVA’s chapter of Phi Kappa Psi–the fraternity where Erdely reported Jackie had been assaulted–announced plans to sue Rolling Stone, and possibly Erdely, too, the Associated Press reported. “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 Stephen Scipione, president of the the University of Virginia’s Phi Kappa Psi chapter, in a statement
After the story came out, Phi Kappa Psi members said they felt vilified by their fellow students; protests took place on their lawn, and their frat house was vandalized. They noted, too, that when Erdely issued an apology last night, she acknowledged several groups harmed by her reporting–including Rolling Stone’s readers, her editors, and the UVA community–but made no mention of Phi Kappa Psi.