Investigation of Rolling Stone's 'A Rape on Campus' finds journalistic failure

The Columbia School of Journalism's review of Rolling Stone's "A Rape on Campus" found the story published last November was largely based on a single reluctant source named "Jackie" whose story about being gang raped at a University of Virginia frat house cannot be verified.  Rolling Stone editors retracted the story and apologized for it but said they see no need for a major overhaul in how the magazine reports and edits.

The report said the problems that led to Rolling Stone's retraction and apology for the article "is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable." The whole debacle might have been avoided if the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, had contacted three key people, witnesses who the rape "victim" said she spoke with on the night of the attack, according to the report. The reporter would have found none of those people would verify the story.

The report went on:

The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking. The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine's editors to reconsider publishing Jackie's narrative so prominently, if at all. The published story glossed over the gaps in the magazine's reporting by using pseudonyms and by failing to state where important information had come from."

The investigation into Rolling Stone's reporting found:

  • Editors and fact-checkers didn't push Erdely hard enough to verify the story that the"victim" whom she called "Jackie" had told her about being lured to a frat party and raped by seven men.
  • Editors, under pressure to publish by deadline, feared "Jackie" would stop cooperating if they pushed her to name the man she said lured her to the party.
  • The reporter did not know the name of the man "Jackie" said was responsible and never spoke with him, if he existed at all.
  • The reporter did not check with three people "Jackie" said she told about the rape and Rolling Stone editors did not insist that she contact them.
  • The problems behind this story were not a result of cutbacks at Rolling Stone. The report said, "The magazine's records and interviews with participants show that the failure of 'A Rape on Campus' was not due to a lack of resources. The problem was methodology, compounded by an environment where several journalists with decades of collective experience failed to surface and debate problems about their reporting or to heed the questions they did receive from a fact-checking colleague."
  • The editors and the reporter didn't push "Jackie" on details out of concern for her. The report said, "Editors and Erdely have concluded that their main fault was to be too accommodating of Jackie because she described herself as the survivor of a terrible sexual assault."

But the Columbia University investigation said Rolling Stone's concerns were no excuse:

"Yet the explanation that Rolling Stone failed because it deferred to a victim cannot adequately account for what went wrong. Erdely's reporting records and interviews with participants make clear that the magazine did not pursue important reporting paths even when Jackie had made no request that they refrain. The editors made judgments about attribution, fact-checking and verification that greatly increased their risks of error but had little or nothing to do with protecting Jackie's position.

The investigation blames Rolling Stone editors as much as the reporter, Erdley.

Sean Woods, Erdely's primary editor, might have prevented the effective retraction of Jackie's account by pressing his writer to close the gaps in her reporting. He started his career in music journalism but had been editing complex reported features at Rolling Stone for years. Investigative reporters working on difficult, emotive or contentious stories often have blind spots. It is up to their editors to insist on more phone calls, more travel, more time, until the reporting is complete. Woods did not do enough.

And the blame runs up the Rolling Stone food chain. The report said:

Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner said he typically reads about half of the stories in each issue before publication. He read a draft of Erdely's narrative and found Jackie's case "extremely strong, powerful, provocative. … I thought we had something really good there." But Wenner leaves the detailed editorial supervision to managing editor Will Dana, who has been at the magazine for almost two decades. Dana might have looked more deeply into the story drafts he read, spotted the reporting gaps and insisted that they be fixed. He did not. "It's on me," Dana said. "I'm responsible."

But despite the contrition, Rolling Stone seems ready to plow ahead without major changes in policies. The report contains this passage:

Yet Rolling Stone's senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story's failure does not require them to change their editorial systems. "It's not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don't think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things," Dana said. "We just have to do what we've always done and just make sure we don't make this mistake again." Coco McPherson, the fact-checking chief, said, "I one hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter."

The report makes some specific recommendations that all journalists can learn from:

Recommendation one: Consider banning pseudonyms

Dana, Woods and McPherson said using pseudonyms at Rolling Stone is a "case by case" issue that requires no special convening or review. Pseudonyms are inherently undesirable in journalism. They introduce fiction and ask readers to trust that this is the only instance in which a publication is inventing details at its discretion. Their use in this case was a crutch – it allowed the magazine to evade coming to terms with reporting gaps. Rolling Stone should consider banning them. If its editors believe pseudonyms are an indispensable tool for its forms of narrative writing, the magazine should consider using them much more rarely and only after robust discussion about alternatives, with dissent encouraged.

Recommendation two: Check derogatory information
The reporter and fact-checker's decision not to check with those three "friends" who the "victim" said she spoke with on the night she said she was attacked may have been the worst decision of all. If they had checked those three sources, they would have found "Jackie's" story didn't hold up. The report said, "If the fact-checking department had understood that such a practice was unacceptable, the outcome would almost certainly have changed."

Recommendation three: Confront subjects with details
This may be the topic that investigative journalists discuss most from this report. Reporters sometimes do not want to give up too much information when they are interviewing people. But when Rolling Stone did not reveal what it thought it knew to be fact to the fraternity or to the university, the interviewees did not have the opportunity to counter with conflicting facts. The report recommends, out of fairness, journalists be forthright and provide enough information for the subjects of the story to respond fully.

Recommendation four: Balance sensitivity to victims with the demands of verification
The report says Rolling Stone editors eventually backed off their demands for verification of Jackie's story because they thought she had been through the trauma of rape and didn't want to cause her further harm. It is an understandable concern. The report said:

"Because questioning a victim's account can be traumatic, counselors have cautioned journalists to allow survivors some control over their own stories. This is good advice. Yet it does survivors no good if reporters documenting their cases avoid rigorous practices of verification. That may only subject the victim to greater scrutiny and skepticism."

Recommendation five: Seek corroboration even, even in rape cases
Hospital records, 911 calls, text messages and emails are among the sources of information that can be used.

The final recommendation is key. Keep reporting on campus rapes. Report with care, with skill and with sensitivity, but do not allow this failure to stop the examination of a national problem. The investigation said:

It would be unfortunate if Rolling Stone's failure were to deter journalists from taking on high-risk investigations of rape in which powerful individuals or institutions may wish to avoid scrutiny but where the facts may be underdeveloped. There is clearly a need for a more considered understanding and debate among journalists and others about the best practices for reporting on rape survivors, as well as on sexual assault allegations that have not been adjudicated.

The final line of the report:

The responsibilities that universities have in preventing campus sexual assault – and the standards of performance they should be held to – are important matters of public interest. Rolling Stone was right to take them on. The pattern of its failure draws a map of how to do better.

As for Erdely, the report found no evidence "that she invented facts; the problem was that she relied on what Jackie told her without vetting its accuracy."

Still, Erdely apologized tonight in the New York Times, “The past few months, since my Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus” was first called into question, have been among the most painful of my life. Reading the Columbia account of the mistakes and misjudgments in my reporting was a brutal and humbling experience. I want to offer my deepest apologies: to Rolling Stone’s readers, to my Rolling Stone editors and colleagues, to the U.V.A. community, and to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.

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