If the just-released, 12,000-word Columbia School of Journalism investigation into Rolling Stone’s deeply flawed rape story makes one point crystal clear, it is this: Rolling Stone screwed up in basically every way possible.
Rolling Stone published the explosive story about a rape victim named Jackie in late November; by early December a Washington Post reporter uncovered evidence that disputed the reporting done by the author, Rolling Stone contributing editor Sabrina Erdely.
But beyond the obvious inconsistencies in Jackie’s story, it’s now clear the article was a systemic failure from start to finish. The report, which was written by Columbia Journalism School deans Steve Coll and Sheila Coronel along with researcher Derek Kravitz, concluded that the article’s problems began when Erdely declined to push Jackie for specific details and ignored (or missed) opportunities to report out the story.
Yet the explanation that Rolling Stone failed because it deferred to a victim cannot adequately account for what went wrong. 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.
For example, Erdely reportedly declined to interview any of the students named in the story, who apparently saw Jackie immediately after the alleged attack. And as the report points out, Erdely ignored resources that were readily available to her—like Facebook, for example—and instead relied on Jackie’s assertions that they weren’t interested in participating in the story.
At some point, Erdely appeared to give up on corroborating Jackie’s story and her editor Sean Woods apparently acceded, to their great detriment:
If Erdely had reached Ryan Duffin – his true name – he would have said that he had never told Jackie that he would not participate in Rolling Stone’s “shit show,” Duffin said in an interview for this report. The entire conversation with Ryan that Jackie described to Erdely “never happened,” he said. Jackie had never tried to contact him about cooperating with Rolling Stone. He hadn’t seen Jackie or communicated with her since the previous April, he said.
If Erdely had learned Ryan’s account that Jackie had fabricated their conversation, she would have changed course immediately, to research other UVA rape cases free of such contradictions, she said later.
If Erdely had called Kathryn Hendley and Alex Stock – their true names – to check their sides of Jackie’s account of Sept. 28 and 29, they would have denied saying any of the words Jackie attributed to them (as Ryan would have as well). They would have described for Erdely a history of communications with Jackie that would have left the reporter with many new questions. For example, the friends said that Jackie told them that her date on Sept. 28 was not a lifeguard but a student in her chemistry class named Haven Monahan. (The Charlottesville police said in March they could not identify a UVA student or any other person named Haven Monahan.) All three friends would have spoken to Erdely, they said, if they had been contacted.
Nor did she fully explain to the fraternity the allegations that Jackie was leveling against them, depriving them of an opportunity to point out other inconsistencies—for instance, there had been no party on the night in question, and that no members of the fraternity matched Jackie’s description.
And the most glaring issue of all: Jackie refused to tell Erdely her alleged attacker’s name. (She would later provide it, weeks after publication. According to the report, she was unsure how to spell it.) Finally, Erdely suggested they use a pseudonym: Drew.
It got worse. Once a draft of the story was submitted, it went to the magazine’s fact checkers and editors, who also should have spotted glaring problems.
Coco McPherson, who heads the fact-checking department at Rolling Stone, said the sourcing of the story was a decision made by editors “above her pay grade,” and she understood the account to be a “provocative story” based on a single source’s account. Because she “had faith in everyone involved,” she didn’t raise any issues.
In the meantime, the editors above her pay grade had already given up:
“In retrospect, I wish somebody had pushed me harder” about reaching out to the three for their versions, Erdely said. “I guess maybe I was surprised that nobody said, ‘Why haven’t you called them?’ But nobody did, and I wasn’t going to press that issue.” Of course, just because an editor does not ask a reporter to check derogatory information with a subject, that does not absolve the reporter of responsibility.
Woods remembered the sequence differently. After he read the first draft, he said, “I asked Sabrina to go reach” the three friends. “She said she couldn’t. … I did repeatedly ask, ‘Can we reach these people? Can we?’ And I was told no.” He accepted this because “I felt we had enough.” The documentary evidence provided by Rolling Stone sheds no light on whose recollection — Erdely’s or Wood’s – is correct.
Rolling Stone’s editors did not make clear to readers that Erdely and her editors did not know “Drew’s” true name, had not talked to him and had been unable to verify that he existed. That was fundamental to readers’ understanding. In one draft of the story, Erdely did include a disclosure. She wrote that Jackie “refuses to divulge [Drew’s] full name to RS,” because she is “gripped by fears she can barely articulate.” Woods cut that passage as he was editing. He “debated adding it back in” but “ultimately chose not to.”
Will Dana, the managing editor of Rolling Stone, told the authors of the report that “he was not even aware that Rolling Stone did not know the man’s full name and had not confirmed his existence. Nor was he told that ‘we’d made any kind of agreement with Jackie to not try to track this person down.’”
So what happened when the legal department reviewed the story, you might ask? The answer is, they’re not telling. It’s a gaping part of the story that the magazine refused to disclose to the investigation.
Natalie Krodel, an in-house lawyer for Wenner Media, conducted a legal review of the story before publication. Krodel had been on staff for several years and typically handled about half of Rolling Stone’s pre-publication reviews, sharing the work with general counsel Dana Rosen.5 It is not clear what questions the lawyer may have raised about the draft. Erdely and the editors involved declined to answer questions about the specifics of the legal review, citing instructions from the magazine’s outside counsel, Elizabeth McNamara, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine. McNamara said Rolling Stone would not answer questions about the legal review of “A Rape on Campus” in order to protect attorney-client privilege.
But despite the embarrassing retraction and unflattering investigation that this story has brought on, Rolling Stone doesn’t appear to be making any editorial changes. None of the editors, reporters, and fact-checkers involved in the story will be fired, and many of those involved claim it was a one-time mistake.
“It’s not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don’t think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things,” Dana said. “We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.” Coco McPherson, the fact-checking chief, said, “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.”
“Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” Woods said in the report. “We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”
Erdely, for her part, takes responsibility for the way she reported the story.
“Over my 20 years of working as an investigative journalist — including at Rolling Stone, a magazine I grew up loving and am honored to work for — I have often dealt with sensitive topics and sources. In writing each of these stories I must weigh my compassion against my journalistic duty to find the truth,” she said in a statement released Sunday. “However, 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.”
[image via AP]