April 5, 2015

Rolling Stone and Columbia Journalism Review have both published Columbia Journalism School’s mammoth review of the failures that produced “A Rape On Campus,” the magazine’s deeply flawed article.

Poynter has reached out to several leaders in the journalism community to get their take on the report’s findings, and we’ll update this article as we hear back from them.

Society of Professional Journalists:
“SPJ commends the work of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in dissecting a controversial story, “A Rape on Campus,” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely for Rolling Stone, of an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house.

Released tonight, the report details numerous failings by Rolling Stone’s reporting and editorial team, leading to a story that was largely unverified and contained gaps in credibility that ultimately detracted from the real issue – the negative stigma and culture surrounding reporting sexual assaults on campuses across the country.

‘Basic yet critical fundamentals of journalism seem to have gotten lost in the pursuit of a story that fits a reporter’s predetermined narrative or angle,’ said Dana Neuts, SPJ president.”

Craig Silverman, founder of Emergent.info, Poynter adjunct faculty member:
“Rolling Stone published a story that will live in journalistic infamy. Its response is to do absolutely nothing to prevent it from happening again.

This story suffered from critical flaws and failings in its reporting, editing, and fact checking. When the magazine realized there were serious flaws, it published a hastily written editor’s note that blamed the victim and accepted little if any responsibility. Rolling Stone then took the wise decision of asking an impartial third party to report on what happened. But it did not make all of its related internal communications available for that report, and at least one aspect caused the magazine’s legal representation to decline to participate fully. Now that the results of a damning independent report have been published, the magazine has decided to continue working with the writer, to not fire anyone, and that it does not need to significantly alter any of its editorial procedures.

This is accountability laundering: Rolling Stone handed things over to a third party and did nothing on its own to make things right, or to take the hard but necessary decisions that their failures demand.”

S. Mitra Kalita, managing editor for editorial strategy at the Los Angeles Times:
“I think the main takeaway is that the report essentially does not blame cuts or the speed of digital journalism for anything. Rather this was a breakdown of the actual reporting. Also one other important takeaway is that journalists tend to look for the worst examples to illustrate their stories. Perhaps going forward we will look for more emblematic anecdotes.”

David Boardman, dean of Temple University’s school of media and communication:
“The lack of internal accountability at Rolling Stone for this story is stunning. And one of the key elements that explains that is at the very beginning of the Columbia report when Sabrina Erdely contacts Emily Renda at the University of Virginia. It’s very clear that Erdely and the editors at Rolling Stone had a narrative already framed, and they were looking for characters to fill that narrative.

Even though they had several cases, many of which were documented and verifiable, they were married to the case of Jackie because it fit their predetermined narrative best.”

Deborah Nelson, professor of investigative journalism at the University of Maryland, Pulitzer Prize winner:
“Rolling Stone violated the cardinal rule of investigative reporting: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. It is a too common mistake, even by seasoned journalists. You have got to verify the stories of the victims with the same vigor as the accused. You can do it with sensitivity but you’ve still got to do it. Verification is the holy grail of this kind of journalism. It protects the victims, the accused and — most importantly — the truth.”

Jeff Jarvis, professor at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism:
“Columbia’s report will be a lesson for the ages in maintaining journalistic integrity. At a time when the line between journalism and advocacy will blur — as journalists become closer to the communities they serve — it’s more important than ever to operate according to intellectual honesty, seeing past the justice of a cause to doubt and doublecheck every source, to ask more questions, to drive for greater transparency, and to assure that the facts speak for themselves. In this age of instant news, we journalists must learn that our key skill is not just to report what we know but what we do not know. That is a skill that could have been brought to bear in Rolling Stone’s reporting, especially before publication.”

Andrew Seaman, chair of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists:
“After reading the report, I get the sense that Rolling Stone’s staff got lazy. There is no other word. Unfortunately, their laziness resulted in substantial harm. One would think that the editorial leadership of a magazine with a circulation the size of Rolling Stone’s audience would feel a great need to be meticulous in verifying their reports.

The report from Columbia Journalism School is thorough, fair and balanced. Unfortunately, Rolling Stone’s leadership did not seem to learn from their failures. Instead, the magazine’s managing editor feels the publication’s staff should just not make changes to their editorial processes. Instead, the staff should just not make such a mistake again. That specific thought is sophomoric.”

Scott Libin, chair of RTDNA’s ethics committee:
“Even if we give the magazine’s team the benefit of the doubt and assume that its errors were entirely born of compassion and concern for an apparent victim, it allowed that concern to override its obligation to the truth. Ironically, it appears that Rolling Stone’s misguided decisions did far more harm than thorough reporting would have.

I’m puzzled by what Erik Wemple quotes Coco McPherson as saying: “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.” That seems to imply either that those involved simply flouted the policies or that the policies don’t apply when subject matter is sensitive and complex. Either implication would be troubling.”

Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors:
“This really wasn’t a case of an investigative reporting project with problems, it was a case of holes in basic reporting and editing. The failure to verify key points in the victim’s story led to all of the other issues. Most journalists have run into situations where they have had to cut what seemed like a powerful anecdote or a fiery quote because the back-up for the material just wasn’t there.

There’s a basic rule of journalism that is key to follow in cases like this: You can’t print it unless you can prove it. Potentially great material is lost every day in newsrooms across the country if this standard is upheld.”

Ken Paulson, dean of the college of mass communication at Middle Tennessee State University:
“Sometimes the most valuable role of an editor of an investigative piece is to go line-by-line and simply say “How do we know this? That exercise would have alerted Rolling Stone that a good number of the article’s assertions were based on the compelling account of a single source and the re-telling of that story to a fact-checker.

If you sincerely want to tell the story of sexual assault at America’s universities, you need to do it by examining multiple cases on multiple campuses. The most horrifying example – even if throughly documented – isn’t likely to be representative of the broader problem. The Rolling Stone story would have benefitted from a little more skepticism and a lot more reporting.”

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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