Rolling Stone report authors defer to the magazine on why no one has been fired

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Sheila Coronel and Steve Coll talk about Columbia Journalism School's review of Rolling Stone's story. (Scree shot)

Sheila Coronel and Steve Coll talk about Columbia Journalism School’s review of Rolling Stone’s story. (Screen shot)

The authors of Columbia Journalism School’s review of Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” spoke with the press Monday about their report. Dean Steve Coll and Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs, took questions from gathered press about how they approached the review, how they crafted the report and if they thought those responsible at Rolling Stone should still be employed.

“This report was Rolling Stone’s idea,” Coll said, “and it should be remembered that they undertook it voluntarily.”

Here are some of the questions the authors answered on Monday.

Did they ever consider naming Jackie in their reporting?

“She was anonymous in the report, it was never our intention to make her identity public,” Coronel said. “We knew who she was.”

Were the faults in the story Jackie’s?

“We believe, if you read our report closely, that the problems in the article were problems in methodology,” Coronel said.

Should anyone be fired?

“We pointed our systemic and institutional problems,” Coronel said. “We leave it up to Rolling Stone to figure out how to deal with these problems.”

“We didn’t find evidence of the kind of dishonesty, invention of facts, lying to colleagues…” Coll said.

Coll demurred when asked if he would fire the staffers involved. Reporting on rape in college campuses is tough work, he said.

“This kind of reporting environment, this kind of subject, is a new frontier for serious accountability journalism,” Coll said. “This is an area where we have to have a conversation amongst ourselves about how to do better.”

Was there a preconceived narrative heading into the reporting?

“We talked in our report about confirmation bias,” Coronel said. “About the tendency to see any facts in the case that fit a certain narrative or preconceived notions.”

There was also not enough transparency on the part of UVA to help Sabrina Rubin Erdely get the story, she said.

Did they try and re-report what happened to Jackie?

“The facts of what happened to her were unknowable based on the evidence available,” Coll said.

Phone records didn’t exist, at least the ones that they tried to access. Charlottesville police interviewed 70 people. They didn’t get any farther than Columbia did.

Should Erdely have spent more time in Charlottesville?

“She produced a 400-page transcript of all her interviews,” Coronel said. “It was really not a question of spending enough time on the ground.”

And one of the pitfalls of narrative journalism is trying to find an emblematic story, Coll said. Narrative can be a way to paper over holes in the story. In this case, attributions weren’t always clear.

“There is a tension in narrative writing between putting in ‘she said,’ ‘he said,’ ‘according to her…'” Coll said. “There was something about that choice in the writing made some early readers start to blog and speculate that ‘this doesn’t feel right to me.”

Should Rolling Stone have taken the story down?

It was probably wise, Coronel said, although print copies exist and it still exists online.

“It was their decision. It was a story that they’ve already retracted,” she said. “It was a story that they already admitted was fraud and problematic.”

Why was the review so long?

“For a time we had a rule that this report should not be longer than the original story,” Coll said. “We didn’t get there.”

Can Rolling Stone be trusted now?

“We’re empiricists. Unless there is evidence to the contrary,” Coronel said, “we would judge each story on its merits.”

What about the contention that some this is Jackie’s fault?

“We do disagree with any suggestion that this is Jackie’s fault,” Coll said.

Is that an ethical failure?

Yes, blaming Jackie was a failure, Coll said. But placing the burden of story on single source isn’t an ethical fault.

Do the failings of this story hurt sexual assault awareness?

At UVA, it’s actually helped raise awareness about sexual assault, Coronel said, but “it may discourage women from coming out publicly out of fear that their accounts will be questioned, as Jackie’s account was.”

Should we question other Rolling Stone stories?

The authors only looked at this one story, Coronel said.

“We wish we could answer that question, but we can’t.”


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