Sunday night, Rolling Stone published a report explaining how it got the story of an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity so wrong. The report, co-written by Columbia School of Journalism dean Steve Coll, is an investigation into lapses in reporting, editing, and fact-checking. It runs 13,000 words long—much longer than the original story—and uncovers many lapses, some of them (almost) understandable and others so basic that a first-year Columbia J-school student would be reprimanded for making them. Given all that, the final section of the report is the most surprising: Rolling Stone’s editors are “unanimous in the belief that the story's failure does not require them to change their editorial systems.” Are they serious? Did they read the report?
The original story, written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, pivoted on a horrific anecdote from a UVA freshman called “Jackie” who went on a date with a Phi Kappa Psi brother she called “Drew.” (The piece is no longer available online because Rolling Stone retracted it.) According to the story, he smuggled Jackie into a “pitch-black” room at the frat house and orchestrated a gang rape as some kind of hazing ritual. Jackie, whose real name was ultimately reported in the press, did not speak to the Columbia Journalism School—in fact, she hasn’t spoken publicly since the story started to unravel. In late March, the Charlottesville, Virginia, police, after a four-month investigation, concluded there was no basis to support Jackie’s account as told in Rolling Stone. It’s pretty clear at this point that Jackie made it up.
But it’s also clear that Jackie was a very convincing storyteller. The report takes pains to distinguish this case from those of fabulists such as Jayson Blair or Brian Williams. Erdely thought she had a true story, and from the beginning Jackie tried hard to make it believable, telling the reporter in their first conversation, for example, that she arrived at the frat house at exactly 12:52. She remembered being smashed over a coffee table, hearing someone say, “Grab its motherfucking leg.” All of this was in Erdely’s notes, which were turned over to the magazine before this investigation. Erdely interviewed her seven times, and she never wavered. Jackie even told the same story to T. Rees Shapiro, a Washington Post reporter who eventually debunked it.
Given that, it would be tempting for Rolling Stone to say it got duped by a source. But this would be an unseemly thing to do, because lying sources are a hazard of the trade, and it’s the professionals’ job to spot them. In the magazine’s first apology back in December, managing editor Will Dana stated that their trust in Jackie was “misplaced”; he was roundly criticized and had to take it back in a series of tweets. Rolling Stone is no longer saying it’s Jackie’s fault. (Well, actually, Jann Wenner, the magazine’s publisher, almost said it, telling the New York Times on Sunday that the story’s problems started with its source, a “really expert fabulist storyteller.”). But overall they are saying a modified version of Jackie-did-it which makes them look perhaps naive and sloppy, but also respectful and kind.
The magazine’s central narrative is still that most of the reporting mistakes happened because they were being overly sensitive to the wishes of a rape victim and did not want to retraumatize her or have her pull out of the story. “We were too deferential to our rape victim,” Sean Woods, the story’s editor, told Columbia. “We honored too many of her requests in our reporting.” Erdely, too, is quoted regretting that the discussion she had with her editors was so focused on “how to accommodate her.” But the report soundly concludes that “deferential” and “accommodating” don’t cut it. The report’s most damning finding is that the magazine “did not pursue important reporting paths even when Jackie had made no request that they refrain.” These are “basic, even routine journalistic practice—not special investigative effort,” the report adds. “And if these reporting pathways had been followed, Rolling Stone very likely would have avoided trouble.”
The worst mistake—the one that could have saved them from this mess—was the failure to track down the three friends who Jackie says she saw that night, right after she was raped. Erdely describes a scene in which the friends callously decline to take her to a hospital because they do not want to ruin their reputations. The clichéd dialogue should have made any editor suspicious (“We’ll never be allowed into any frat party again”). Erdely asked Jackie for their last names, but she wouldn’t tell her; she asked a friend of Jackie’s who wouldn’t tell her either.* Jackie continued to insist that at least one of the friends didn’t want to talk, but she never told Erdely she would drop out of the story if Erdely found them.
Erdely should have looked harder, found them on Facebook, asked other friends, the report concludes. If she had they would have told her—as they later told Shapiro—that they never said those things and that on the night in question, Jackie recounted a completely different story. That section of the report ends with a Journalism 101 lesson: “Checking derogatory information with subjects is a matter of fairness, but it can also produce surprising new facts.”
In general the report is somewhat inconclusive about Erdely, who issued an apology Sunday. It hints that she went into the story with a strong agenda, looking for a “pervasive … rape culture” and a dramatic story to prove it. It contends that she is an experienced investigative reporter, although that doesn’t square with the many examples of her taking short cuts whenever she could—for example, emailing fraternity leaders to get comments about allegations of a gang rape without giving them dates, names, or any details they could investigate. The report leaves the impression—without coming out and saying it—that Erdely maybe didn’t want to look too hard for outside sources who might contradict Jackie’s story. And it doesn’t mention that this isn’t the first time that Erdely has relied largely on uncheckable sources or had her stories questioned.
The report mentions possible backlash, including the worry that the Rolling Stone debacle will make it even harder to reform the prevailing systems for dealing with campus sexual assaults. I’m not sure the story actually did so much damage. The debate has continued, with more evidence and good ideas for reform stacking up. Hearing the Phi Kappa Psi chapter president Stephen Scipione say in the report that the Rolling Stone story tarnished their reputation and ruined their lives for the semester doesn’t lead you to conclude that no rape story is ever true and all accused men are innocent; it just sobers you up to realize that rape charges are a pretty serious affair that should be handled with as much care and thorough investigation as possible.
As for reporting on sexual assault? I wouldn’t put my trust in Rolling Stone. No one at the magazine, or at an outside legal firm representing them, would comment on what the magazine’s lawyers said when they looked over the original draft of the story. No one is getting fired. And the editors, despite lots of apologies throughout, wind up sounding indifferent. Dana ended by saying they don’t need new ways of doing things; they “just have to do what we've always done and just make sure we don't make this mistake again." And Coco McPherson, head of fact-checking, 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."
Thankfully the report doesn’t end that way. It gives practical—and somewhat obvious—advice that will likely become required reading for journalism students. Avoid pseudonyms. Check derogatory information, in detail. If you’re reporting on rape, explain to victims, kindly, that you will have to check what they tell you, and if they’re not ready for that, both of you should be prepared to walk away. And I might add: Don’t hide behind the man who pays your salary. Just because he’s not firing you doesn’t mean you should keep doing what you’ve always done.
*Correction, April 6, 2015: This post originally misstated that Sabrina Rubin Erdely asked a friend of hers for the last names of three people who were with Jackie the night she alleged she was raped; Erdely asked a friend of Jackie’s.