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Rolling Stone's botched rape story: how bad journalism happens (+video)

Sexual assault on college campuses is a serious problem that deserves better attention that it often receives. But a failure to verify an accuser's claims harms actual victims of sexual assault.

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    Rolling Stone is pledging to review its editorial practices after a leading journalism school issued a blistering critique of how it reported and edited a discredited article about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia.
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Last fall, Rolling Stone published an explosive report about a woman who claimed that she had been raped at a fraternity party at the University of Virginia and, in the process, set off a firestorm that once again brought the issue of campus sexual assault to the forefront. The initial report, for example, led women to come forward with their own stories of sexual assault, and the University of Virginia itself responded by suspending the fraternity in question and all other fraternities from all activities pending an investigation. Very quickly, though, the tale told by “Jackie,” the woman reportedly making the accusations, began to fall apart. The fraternity in question vehemently denied that the assault that she related ever took place, and follow-up reporting by other reporters uncovered facts that seemed to indicate that many of the details set forth in the story could not have happened the way that Jackie and Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the reporter behind the story, related them. In December, The Washington Post published a report based on a detailed investigation that pretty much established that the assault that was described in the story never took place, and that even the friends of Jackie referenced in the original report had doubts about what their friend had been telling them for some time now. Within less than a month, the story that had appeared in Rolling Stone had been thoroughly discredited, and many observers were left wondering how such a basic breach of journalistic good practices and ethics could have happened in the first place.

Last night, the Columbia School of Journalism released the results of a months-long audit it performed of the original story, and neither Ms. Erdely or her editors come out looking good:

Rolling Stone magazine retracted its article about a brutal gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity after the release of a report on Sunday that concluded the widely discredited piece was the result of failures at every stage of the process.

The report, published by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and commissioned by Rolling Stone, said the magazine failed to engage in “basic, even routine journalistic practice” to verify details of the ordeal that the magazine’s source, identified only as Jackie, described to the article’s author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely.

On Sunday, Ms. Erdely, in her first extensive comments since the article was cast into doubt, apologized to Rolling Stone’s readers, her colleagues and “any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.”

In an interview discussing Columbia’s findings, Jann S. Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone, acknowledged the piece’s flaws but said that it represented an isolated and unusual episode and that Ms. Erdely would continue to write for the magazine. The problems with the article started with its source, Mr. Wenner said. He described her as “a really expert fabulist storyteller” who managed to manipulate the magazine’s journalism process. When asked to clarify, he said that he was not trying to blame Jackie, “but obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.”

The Columbia report cataloged a series of errors at Rolling Stone, finding that the magazine could have avoided trouble with the article if certain basic “reporting pathways” had been followed. Written by Steve Coll, the Columbia journalism school’s dean; Sheila Coronel, the dean of academic affairs; and Derek Kravitz, a postgraduate research scholar at the university, the report, at nearly 13,000 words, is longer than the 9,000-word article, “A Rape on Campus.”

After its publication last November, the article stoked a national conversation about sexual assault on college campuses and roiled the university.

The police in Charlottesville, Va., said last month they had “exhausted all investigative leads” and found “no substantive basis” to support the article’s depiction of the assault. Jackie did not cooperate with the police and declined to be interviewed for the Columbia report. She also declined, through her lawyer, Palma Pustilnik, to be interviewed for this article. She is no longer in touch with some of the advocates who first brought her to the attention of Rolling Stone, said Emily Renda, a rape survivor working on sexual assault issues at the University of Virginia.

In a statement responding to the report, the University of Virginia’s president, Teresa A. Sullivan, described the article as irresponsible journalism that “unjustly damaged the reputations of many innocent individuals and the University of Virginia.”

Mr. Wenner said Will Dana, the magazine’s managing editor, and the editor of the article, Sean Woods, would keep their jobs. [emphasis added.]

In an interview, Mr. Dana said he had reached many of the same conclusions as the Columbia report in his own efforts to examine the article, but he disagreed with the report’s assertion that the magazine had staked its reputation on the word of one source. “I think if you take a step back, our reputation rests on a lot more than this one story,” he said.

After the Post had effectively decimated the factual allegations of the original story, the conclusions of this report aren’t really all that surprising. Notwithstanding the allegations made by “Jackie” in the article, there was simply no evidence that there had ever been an event at the fraternity in question during the time period that she claimed that the assault had occurred. Her story was also discredited by the fact that her description of the building that the attack allegedly occurred in, and her tale of how she finally managed to escape, given the fact that pretty much every single fact she related in this part of the story did not match up with the physical layout of the fraternity house, or apparently of any other building on campus. The friends to whom Jackie had related some details of this attack prior to ever talking to the reporter were incomplete and contradictory to the point where several of them doubted that an attack had ever happened at all, at least not on the campus of the University of Virginia. At one point, Jackie became alarmed when Erdely told her that she would be following up with others to confirm details of the story, including possibly the attacker or others affiliated with the fraternity where this attack allegedly took place. Instead of seeing this as a red flag, as she should have, Erdely apparently went along with the request not to contact others about the claims she was making.

Indeed, there’s nothing in the report that can be characterized as being the slightest bit redeeming for Erdely or Rolling Stone:

The first misstep during the reporting process, the Columbia report said, was that Ms. Erdely did not seek to independently contact three of Jackie’s friends, who were quoted in the piece, using pseudonyms, expressing trepidation at the idea of Jackie telling the authorities that she had been assaulted. The quotes came from Jackie’s recollection of the conversation. Those friends later cast doubt on Jackie’s story in interviews with The Washington Post and denied saying the words Rolling Stone had attributed to them. The three told the report’s authors that they would have made the same denials to Rolling Stone if they had been contacted.

Rolling Stone, the report said, also did not provide the fraternity with enough information to adequately respond to questions from the magazine. Later, when the article had been published, the fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, said it did not host a function on the weekend Jackie had specified.

And the magazine failed to identify Jackie’s attacker, the report said. It was content to give him a pseudonym, Drew, when Jackie resisted Ms. Erdely’s request to help find him. The fraternity, The Post, and the police have been unable to find anyone who matches Jackie’s description of Drew.

The reporting errors by Ms. Erdely were compounded by insufficient scrutiny and skepticism from editors, the report said. And the fact-checking process relied heavily on four hours of conversations with Jackie.

Ms. Erdely, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone who has also written for GQ and The New Yorker, declined to be interviewed for this article. She said in her apology that reading the report was “a brutal and humbling experience.” She also acknowledged that she did not do enough to verify Jackie’s account.

Rolling Stone’s fundamental mistake, Mr. Dana said, was in suspending any skepticism about Jackie’s account because of the sensitivity of the issue. “We didn’t think through all the implications of the decisions that we made while reporting the story, and we never sort of allowed for the fact that maybe the story we were being told was not true,” he said. That was compounded by the fact that any reporting on any purported crime that has not been reported to the authorities is difficult, he said.

“Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim,” Mr. Woods, the article’s editor, said in the report. “We honored too many of her requests in our reporting. We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”

Ms. Erdely, Mr. Wenner said, “was willing to go too far in her effort to try and protect a victim of apparently a horrible crime. She dropped her journalistic training, scruples and rules and convinced Sean to do the same. There is this series of falling dominoes.”

There’s really not much one can say beyond the report itself. Obviously, Erdely, her editors, and the entire magazine dropped the ball here in a most egregious, some would say outrageous manner. It’s still not clear why it happened, but one can imagine that it was likely the case that they became too sympathetic to the accuser that was the subject of their story to the point where they simply abandoned the need for journalists to approach a story like this with the kind of objectivity that requires them to, at least initially, be skeptical about what they’re being told. At the very least, steps should have been taken to attempt to verify the claims that Jackie was making regarding the attack itself. That investigation would have uncovered discrepancies in her story that should have led them to go back to her to try to figure out what the truth might actually be here. Doing so would have endangered the apparently, “friendly” relationship that the magazine in general, and Erdely in particular, had developed with Jackie but given the nature of the allegations she was making, it was a necessary step that any decent journalist has to take. Instead of doing all of that, though, Erdely in particular appears to have become an advocate for the subject of her story, and the piece read more like something that would be written by someone on a political mission than a journalist trying to get at the truth.

There’s no doubt that sexual assault on college campuses is a serious problem that deserves better attention that it often receives. Among other things, the manner in which universities often try to sweep these stories under the rug by conducting secret internal disciplinary investigations rather than referring the matter to the police as it should has the potential to harm both victims and those accused of such crimes. As with every other report of a crime, though, that does not mean that the allegations of a victim should be accepted as face value or that there should not be further investigation to attempt to verify the claims that they make. A criminal trial conducted after such an investigation would be an affront to justice, and the same goes for a journalist’s “investigation” of such a story. The only good thing, perhaps, is that the original story never purported to release the identity of any of the alleged attackers, because one can only imagine  would have happened in that case. In any event, whether it was because she went into the story with an agenda from the start or because she let her sympathy for Jackie’s story get to her, Erdely has ended up harming actual victims of sexual assault by providing fodder for those who will claim that those allegations are often fabricated after the fact. In addition to every else that has resulted from this travesty, that fact alone makes what happened here even more egregious.

Going forward, there’s still much that could come from this disaster. Notwithstanding her apology, which notably does not include an apology for the unnamed “attack,” Erdely remains employed at Rolling Stone, as do her editors. That alone seems to be rather egregious given the nature of what happened here, and the fact that the magazine seems to think that what basically amounts to a promise not to do this again is all that’s necessary. Instead, I would suggest that it will be a long time before anyone should take any reporting from Rolling Stone seriously again, especially if any of the players involved in this story are connected to that reporting. Additionally, Rolling Stone may find itself subjected to libel suits in the not too distant future, a possibility that Eugene Volokh explored in a post back in December and in a follow-up post last night. Beyond that, though, it strikes me that there are lessons for all journalists in what happened here. Whether you're a national reporter or just a local crime reporter, it’s crucial that you don’t simply take what you’re being told at face value. Follow up, investigate, test the premises of the story, and question your sources critically. If you fail to do that, you’re just going to end up embarrassing yourself and your profession.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

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