Columbia Graduate School of Journalism has released its investigation into Rolling Stone‘s November “Rape on Campus” article by freelance journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely about rape at the University of Virginia. With it, Rolling Stone retracted its story and apologized for the article.
“This report was painful reading, to me personally and to all of us at Rolling Stone,” an editor’s note by managing editor Will Dana atop the Columbia report reads. “It is also, in its own way, a fascinating document a piece of journalism, as [Dean of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Steve] Coll describes it, about a failure of journalism.”
“Rolling Stone‘s repudiation of the main narrative in ‘A Rape on Campus’ is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking,” the investigation found. “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.”
Rolling Stone apologized to “readers….members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and UVA administrators and students” for the report which drew “more than 2.7 million views, more than any other feature not about a celebrity that the magazine had ever published.”
What were some of the problems?
The problems with the Rolling Stone article weren’t “due to a lack of resources,” Columbia found. “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.”
Rolling Stone also “obfuscated important problems with the story’s reporting,” failing to tell readers it didn’t contact or know the name of the accused organizer of the gang rape, misleading readers with information told by Jackie about other people’s comments, relying on a single source, and confirmation bias.
Dana admitted an “individual failure” as well as a “procedural failure, an institutional failure” to the Columbia School of Journalism investigators.
“The 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,” the investigation reported. Editor Sean Woods told the investigators, “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting.” He added, “We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”
The investigation responded to that, arguing that instead Rolling Stone and Erderly’s failures weren’t limited to how they handled Jackie.
“The explanation that Rolling Stone failed because it deferred to a victim cannot adequately account for what went wrong,” the investigation concluded. “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.”
But the investigation did somewhat agree that “Woods did not do enough.”
“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,” the investigation decided. Managing editor Dana admitted he was “responsible” for the story and the investigation concluded he should have “spotted the reporting gaps and insisted they be fixed.”
That said, “In hindsight, the most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was to accept that Erdely had not contacted the three friends who spoke with Jackie on the night she said she was raped. That was the reporting path, if taken, that would have almost certainly led the magazine’s editors to change plans,” the investigation determined.
Erderly agreed, telling the investigators, “in retrospect, I wish somebody had pushed me harder” about getting their comments, admitting that it “does not absolve the reporter [her] of responsibility.”
The investigation by the Columbia School of Journalism was done for free, the editor’s note stated. “We agreed that we would cooperate fully, that he and his team could take as much time as they needed and write whatever they wanted. They would receive no payment, and we promised to publish their report in full. (A condensed version of the report will appear in the next issue of the magazine, out April 8th.)”
In addition to the proper retraction and unpublishing of the article, the Columbia investigation noted that the local police for UVA determined “There is no substantive basis to support the account alleged in the Rolling Stone article.”
Because of the problems with the report, “the magazine’s failure may ave spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations,” the opposite of Rolling Stone‘s intent for the report, investigation found, noting that the fraternity accused of gang raping Jackie, Phi Kappa Psi, said the report “completely tarnished our reputation.”
Rolling Stone‘s legal department did review the article, the investigation noted.
The failures in the article weren’t because of fabrication by Erderly, the investigation added. “There is no evidence in Erdely’s materials or from interviews with her subjects that she invented facts; the problem was that she relied on what Jackie told her without vetting its accuracy.”
Rolling Stone publisher Jann S. Wenner “said Will Dana, the magazine’s managing editor, and the editor of the article, Sean Woods, would keep their jobs,” the New York Times reported.
Atop the report, which is posted in place of the original article by Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s November story, is a “note from the editor,” managing editor Will Dana, explaining that after so many questions and concerns about the report, ‘the only responsible and credible thing” Rolling Stone could do “was to ask someone from outside the magazine to investigate any lapses in reporting, editing and fact-checking behind the story.”
Rolling Stone announced in December that it asked the Columbia Journalism School to investigate the “Rape on Campus” article, as iMediaEthics reported at the time. Rolling Stone admitted it never contacted the students accused of gang raping “Jackie” and apologized for failures in its report in early December. Its first apology was accused of victim-blaming, saying that it was Jackie’s fault for “discrepancies” in her story. Rolling Stone later amended its apology to accept responsibility for its editorial failures.
iMediaEthics has written to Columbia University to ask why it released the report on Easter Sunday instead of on a business day.
Erderly issued a statement in response to the investigation apologizing, the New York Times reported. Erderly called the time since her article as published “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,” she said.
Erderly went on, “In the case of Jackie and her account of her traumatic rape, I did not go far enough to verify her story. I allowed my concern for Jackie’s well-being, my fear of re-traumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts. These are mistakes I will not make again.”
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Columbia J School Investigation: What did Fact Checkers do?
Columbia’s investigation opened by detailing how the Rolling Stone writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, began her story. According to the investigation, Erderly’s notes show she called a UVA staff member focused on “sexual assault issues” for “a single, emblematic college rape case.” That staffer, Emily Renda, put Erderly in touch with “Jackie” who told Erderly her story of being gang raped.
Jackie didn’t “respond to questions” for Columbia Journalism School’s report, the investigation said. But, Erderly’s notes said that Jackie was “confident” and “consistent” when first telling her story to Erderly in July 2014. She “believed firmly that Jackie’s account was reliable” as “did her editors and the story’s fact-checker, who spent more than four hours on the telephone with Jackie, reviewing every detail of her experience.”
That fact-checker was protected by Rolling Stone which asked Columbia J School to not identify her “because she did not have decision-making authority,” the investigation stated. The fact-checker added that Jackie “wasn’t just answering, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ she was correcting me” and that the fact-checker “did not have doubt.”
The fact checker “did try to improve the story’s reporting and attribution of quotations” but didn’t contact her boss about “her concerns,” the investigation ruled.
Erderly interviewed Jackie a total of eight times according to Columbia J School, and was characterized by Rolling Stone‘s Will Dana as “a very thorough and persnickety reporter who’s able to navigate extremely difficult stories with a lot of different points of view.”
Despite that, Columbia School of Journalism concluded “Jackie proved to be a challenging source” because she didn’t always respond to Erderly. Twice, in fact, Erderly “feared Jackie might withdraw her cooperation,” and wouldn’t give Erderly the name of the person she said “organized the attack on her.”
Jackie’s account of the alleged assault a year earlier to the university and friends was different from that she told the magazine. “She was forced to have oral sex with several men while at a fraternity party,” she said in 2013, without naming the fraternity or anyone who attacked her, which the university said made it hard for it to respond..
Rolling Stone published its report “without knowing [that person’s] name or verifying his existence,” the investigation found. Erderly finally got the name from Jackie after publication, but was concerned because Jackie didn’t know “how to spell the lifeguard’s last name,” the investigation stated. “An alarm bell went off in my head” at that point, Erderly is quoted as saying.
After that, with Erderly further investigating Jackie’s claims, media outlets questioned the report and Erderly told her editor Sean Woods that “she had now lost confidence in the accuracy of her published description of Jackie’s assault,” the investigation reported.
Following her conversation with a “stunned” Woods, Rolling Stone “effectively retracted” the story, the investigation said.
Despite the failures in the “Rape on Campus” report, the Columbia J School argued that Rolling Stone shouldn’t avoid covering “high-risk investigations of rape.”
“Three Failures of Reporting Effort”
The investigation identified “three failures of reporting effort” in Erderly’s story.
“They involve basic, even routine journalistic practice – not special investigative effort. And if these reporting pathways had been followed, Rolling Stone very likely would have avoided trouble,” the investigation found.
1) Erderly didn’t contact the friends of Jackie who Jackie said picked her up after the alleged attack, even though the description of them “was unflattering.” Those friends denied Jackie’s story after publication and would have tipped Rolling Stone off to discrepancies.
“Journalistic practice – and basic fairness – require that if a reporter intends to publish derogatory information about anyone, he or she should seek that person’s side of the story,” the investigation reminded, adding, “The episode reaffirms a truism of reporting: Checking derogatory information with subjects is a matter of fairness, but it can also produce surprising new facts.”
2) Not checking with the fraternity
While Erderly did contact the chapter president Stephen Scipone about the claims against UVA’s Phi Kappa Psi, she only offered “a decidedly truncated version of the facts that Erderly believed she had in hand.” Namely, she didn’t specifically ask about Jackie’s claims, or the date in question, instead just asking about general gang rape claims.
“If Erdely had provided Scipione and [Phi Kappa Psi national executive director Shawn] Collinsworth the full details she possessed instead of asking simply for ‘comment,’ the fraternity might have investigated the facts she presented,” the investigation wrote. “After Rolling Stone published, Phi Kappa Psi said it did just that.”
Likewise, Phi Kappa Psi’s Scipione called the Rolling Stone attempt “complete bullshit” because “they weren’t telling me what they were going to write about” specifically “any dates or details.”
3) Not contacting the person accused of orchestrating the alleged gang rape
Erderly had a “six-week struggle” with Jackie about contacting the person nicknamed “Drew” who Jackie said set up a date with her before arranging the alleged gang rape.
While “Erderly did try to identify the man on her own,” and Jackie didn’t prohibit her attempting to do so, Erderly never found the person and just used a pseudonym.
Erderly on the other hand defended her attempt for comment saying she “felt that I gave him a full opportunity to respond.”
While Rolling Stone found this story to be an exception in its process, with Dana telling the investigation “it’s not like I think we need to overhaul our process,” the investigation did suggest a few adjustments within the magazine.
“Better and clearer policies about reporting practices, pseudonyms and attribution might well have prevented the magazine’s errors. The checking department should have been more assertive about questioning editorial decisions that the story’s checker justifiably doubted. Dana said he was not told of reporting holes like the failure to contact the three friends or the decision to use misleading attributions to obscure that fact.”
iMediaEthics has updated this report throughout April 5.
This report was originally posted April 5.