No one was fired. The Rolling Stone story “A Rape on Campus” disappears from their site, replaced by the Columbia Journalism School’s report. But how will the magazine recover from this massive, public failure?
Even people who don’t regularly read Rolling Stone are aware that the magazine’s story about a 2012 gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity was false.
Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana vowed to adopt the policy recommendations at the end of Columbia’s report. But Rolling Stone’s executives have rejected a major overhaul of the reporting, editing and fact-checking process, suggesting that this debacle was unique and not the result of a pattern.
That leaves the culture and news magazine with two pathways to redemption both slow and arduous.
First, in implementing the mild policy reforms, the magazine can do a close examination of the internal culture that created these two critical scenarios documented by the CJR report:
- The story editor, Sean Woods, inexplicably let go of his demands that Sabrina Rubin Erdely track down the three friends who advised Jackie the night of the alleged attack, or verify that the man Jackie claimed orchestrated the attack actually existed. A review of the internal culture at the magazine could surface exactly why Woods didn’t share at all or didn’t share loudly enough the burden of those concerns with the five other people who read the story before publication.
- The junior fact-checker assigned to the story failed to bring her concerns about the single source story to her boss, specifically the attribution of unflattering quotes to Jackie’s friends, even though the writer had never interviewed them.
Second, it can invest heavily in hard-hitting investigative work that gets a lot of attention, forces results, and eventually allows the public to see the magazine as an investigative powerhouse that gets the facts right.
This is risky. The work must be impeccable. Critics, including anyone who is the target of future Rolling Stone investigations, will certainly bring up the UVA story as evidence to question Rolling Stone’s credibility. Rolling Stone will win its regular audience back by putting out quality work.
For the audience that never reads Rolling Stone, the damage is significant. The magazine will have to win them back over time by getting their attention with good journalism that makes stuff happen.