Since November 19, Rolling Stone’s story about the brutal gang rape of a University of Virginia student has been viewed 2.7 million times. Now, visitors to that URL won’t find the tale of “Jackie,” the UVA junior who told reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely she was brutally attacked by seven men at a fraternity party and subsequently ignored or mistreated by administrators and members of the campus community. They’ll find a 12,000-word report by Columbia School of Journalism deans Steve Coll and Sheila Coronel exploring how a reputable magazine wound up publishing a story that is largely, if not entirely false, based on the testimony of a single, unreliable source.
Coll and Coronel—who’ve spent the past few months basically re-reporting Erdely’s piece— call it a “journalistic failure that was avoidable.”
Their report appears on Rolling Stone‘s website along with an apology from managing editor Will Dana. Erdely also issued an apology, saying, “Reading the Columbia account of the mistakes and misjudgments in my reporting was a brutal and humbling experience.” The magazine’s publisher, Jann Wenner, reportedly told the New York Times that neither Dana nor Erdely would be fired.
“The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking,”Coll and Coronel write. They identify three main issues:
– The most obvious problem is that Erdely relied too heavily on one source. When she couldn’t reach key characters in Jackie’s story, she gave in and took Jackie’s word for it. According to Erdely’s piece, after being attacked, Jackie confided in three friends who supposedly discouraged her from reporting the rape out of concern for how it would impact their social status. “Journalistic practice – and basic fairness – require that if a reporter intends to publish derogatory information about anyone, he or she should seek that person’s side of the story,”the authors of the report wrote. But Jackie wouldn’t give Erdely their names, and she eventually stopped trying to reach them. If she had spoken with them, they would have disputed Jackie’s story, and might have raised alarm bells about her credibility.
– When Erdely approached members of Phi Kappa Psi, the frat where Jackie was supposedly attacked, and asked for comment, she didn’t describe the full extent of the allegations against them; she just told them she was writing about a sexual assault. If she had relayed Jackie’s whole story, they might have pointed out flaws—like that they hadn’t hosted a party on the night Jackie said she was raped. There was no reason for Erdely to hide information from the frat. The authors write:
There are cases where reporters may choose to withhold some details of what they plan to write while seeking verification for fear that the subject might “front run” by rushing out a favorably spun version pre-emptively. There are sophisticated journalistic subjects in politics and business that sometimes burn reporters in this way. Even so, it is risky for a journalist to withhold detailed derogatory information from any subject before publication. Here, there was no apparent need to fear “front-running” by Phi Kappa Psi.
– The instigator of the attack is a student Erdely calls “Drew.” Drew (a pseudonym) supposedly asked Jackie out on a date and then led her to the room where she was raped. Jackie refused to tell Erdely Drew’s full name, saying she was still “terrified” of him and was afraid of involving him in the reporting. Jackie and Erdely went back and forth on the point for six weeks, and Erdely feared Jackie would stop cooperating. From the report: “There was a point in which she disappeared for about two weeks,” Erdely said, “and we became very concerned” about Jackie’s well-being. “Her behavior seemed consistent with a victim of trauma.” Erdely and her editors—wanting to avoid re-traumatizing a rape survivor—eventually decided they didn’t need to verify Drew’s name or existence.
Columbia’s report sheds a lot of light on what went wrong. But I was left with plenty of questions.
– How much of Erdely’s still reporting holds up?
The issues with Jackie’s story obviously discredit a lot of the piece and cast doubt on Erdely’s reporting. But how much of the rest of the piece—particularly the parts about the culture of UVA—stand up? Sexual assault is undoubtedly a problem at UVA, as at other college campuses. Do students really call the college “UVrApe”?
– Why did Jackie lie?
The central mystery of this whole episode is why Jackie lied. She declined to be interviewed for the report, and wouldn’t cooperate with a police investigation that launched after the article was published. Erdely says Jackie seemed to be “feeling really good” after the story was published, and thanked Erdely many times. She may not have understood the magnitude of what she was getting herself into. She apparently “sounded shocked” when Erdely warned her that Drew was certainly going to see the article.
– Can Rolling Stone recover its credibility?
Remarkably, Rolling Stone remains defensive about its policies: “Rolling Stone‘s senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems,” according to the report.
Columbia’s report has been likened to the one the New York Times put together after reporter Jayson Blair was revealed to be systematically plagiarizing and fabricating his stories. But then The Times took concrete steps to prevent that kind of fraud from happening again, like creating the role of a public editor and a standards editor.
– Will journalists be allowed to slow down now?
The excitement of producing a story that would go viral and generate massive amounts of traffic clearly helped tempt the editors to cut corners. “I thought we had something really good there,” Wenner is quoted as saying.
But the idea that journalists might be encouraged to take their time is probably just wishful thinking. If this episode hasn’t even provoked Rolling Stone to make any institutional changes, it seems unlikely that it’ll inspire any kind of change in journalism as a profession.