After the credibility of the November Rolling Stone story “A Rape on Campus” began to unravel, the magazine asked the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to independently investigate what had gone wrong. Here are some key aspects of the 12,000-word report by deans Steve Coll and Sheila Coronel and postgraduate research scholar Derek Kravitz, and what has so far emerged in response to it.
1. No one is getting fired, despite major journalistic failures. That’s according to the magazine’s owner and publisher, Jann Wenner. The story technically went through two layers of editing and a factchecker, but at several points, both senior staff and the reporter abdicated their basic responsibilities in favor of pushing forward with the story. To name a few instances: After “Jackie” stopped responding to messages late in the process, editors agreed Erdely could use a pseudonym for the accused and stop trying to contact him. Erdely did not try to contact three friends of Jackie’s who are portrayed as callously indifferent to their friend on the night of the alleged assault, and her editor, though he remembers some events differently from Erdely, allowed the story to go to press without interviewing the friends (or even disclosing the friends had not been interviewed) because “I felt we had enough.”
Strikingly, in an interview with The New York Times, Wenner focused the blame first on Jackie and then on Erdely, who ”dropped her journalistic training, scruples and rules and convinced Sean [Woods, her editor] to do the same.” But it is the two more senior, full-time editors, Woods and managing editor Will Dana, who are supposed to serve as journalistic gatekeepers and quality control, the report points out.
2. “Jackie” remains silent. The woman known as Jackie has given no public statements since shortly after the Rolling Stone story was published. She last spoke with the Washington Post as its reporting began to suggest there were major holes in the magazine’s account. According to the Charlottesville Police, Jackie did not speak to them for their investigation. She didn’t talk to the Columbia Journalism School authors, either, who were told by Jackie’s Legal Aid lawyer that it “is in her best interest to remain silent at this time.”
3. Sensitivity to a victim versus accuracy is a false choice. As doubts began to be raised about Rolling Stone’s story, the magazine said its true error was in trying to tread lightly with a trauma victim. “In trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault, we made a judgment – the kind of judgment reporters and editors make every day,” editor Will Dana wrote in a note to readers in December. “We should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story.” But the Columbia report strongly disputes that point, at least as the exclusive explanation for the story’s inaccuracies.
“The explanation that Rolling Stone failed because it deferred to a victim cannot adequately account for what went wrong,” the Columbia authors write. “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.” In fact, there was never any formal agreement at all, nor any specific set of demands from Jackie that the magazine not reach out to the three friends she saw on the night in question, or that the magazine not try to locate the man she said orchestrated a gang rape.
4. The story began and ended with a desire for a “dramatic example.” Most readers want a character to connect to, especially if a dense policy issue is involved. But in the case of this story, that impulse went much too far, seemingly blinding both reporter and editors to holes in the story. The story, Erdely told the Columbia team, was about “the way colleges handle these types of things,” meaning sexual assault, and Jackie “was just the most dramatic example.” The authors point out that ”Erdely’s reporting led her to other, adjudicated cases of rape at the university that could have illustrated her narrative, although none was as shocking and dramatic as Jackie’s.” Pinning it all on a single, shocking story didn’t just crush the nuance of a complex topic – it ultimately harmed the journalist and the institutions involved – and most importantly, the larger issues at stake.