Last November, we published a story, 'A Rape on Campus' [RS 1223], that centered around a University of Virginia student's horrifying account of her alleged gang rape at a campus fraternity house. Within days, commentators started to question the veracity of our narrative. Then, when The Washington Post uncovered details suggesting that the assault could not have taken place the way we described it, the truth of the story became a subject of national controversy.The CSJ report doesn't add much to what was already discovered in the days and weeks after Rolling Stone first published "A Rape on Campus" in November, 2014. We blogged on it here.
As we asked ourselves how we could have gotten the story wrong, we decided the only responsible and credible thing to do was to ask someone from outside the magazine to investigate any lapses in reporting, editing and fact-checking behind the story. We reached out to Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter himself, who accepted our offer. 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.
The reactions to the report have been harsh, to say the least. From Howard Kurtz at Fox News (via The Daily Caller):
Fox News’ Howard Kurtz called the false Rolling Stone story on rape at the University of Virginia “one of the worst journalistic catastrophes of the last half-century.”While I would say it certainly was a journalistic catastrophe, I would not go so far as to say it was one of the worst such catastrophes in the last half century. For that I'd have to point to the clusterfuck that was the mainstream media's failure to fact check the Bush Administration in the run up to the Iraq war. But then again that's just me and we should remember that Kurtz was talking to Megyn Kelly on Fox "News."
Kurtz, who made the comments on “The Kelly File” to host Megyn Kelly Monday night, said it’s “unimaginable” that the story made it to print.
Coll’s findings are blistering condemnation of multiple mistakes and errors in judgement on the part of everyone from the writer to multiple editors, a fact-check and possibly a lawyer. Moreover, he makes it abundantly clear that none of this was “Jackie’s” fault.As much as I am in agreement with Adalia Woodbury (who wrote that piece at PoliticsUSA) I think she may be veering off topic somewhat.
This was despite Rolling Stone’s attempt to excuse its journalistic shortcomings because they were “too accommodating” of the alleged victim, “Jackie.” Even in their retraction, Rolling Stone tried to shift responsibility to Jackie. Rolling Stone didn’t get it when they ran the story and they don’t get it now. Instead of advancing the very real issue that rape does happen on campus, Rolling Stone reinforced the fears that every rape victim has. First, that she won’t be believed and second that she will be blamed.
Before I get to that, I have to say that Rolling Stone is completely wrong when they defend themselves with this:
Yet Rolling Stone's senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story's failure does not require them to change their editorial systems. "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."Their story: the editorial policies didn't fail, they just weren't followed because it was a rape story.
But isn't the necessity to follow a policy kinda sorta part of that policy? Or at the very least, wouldn't not following a particular editorial policy somehow break another editorial policy?
And for a blunder this damaging, to admit to the blunders with no one being punished for making them is just plain wrong. In the end it'll only invalidate whatever credibility Rolling Stone has left.
But it's not like it's impossible to get fired from Rolling Stone. From Slate:
Too bad, though, that Rolling Stone didn’t seem to have that same loyalty toward other staff members who had been forced out of the magazine for offenses that seem downright minor—if offenses at all—in comparison with the UVA rape story debacle. In 1996, Wenner fired senior music editor Jim DeRogatis after he wrote a negative review of Hootie and the Blowfish, which was replaced by a positive review. When the New York Observer asked DeRogatis whether Wenner was a fan of the band he answered: “No, I think he’s just a fan of bands which sell eight and a half million copies."(Full disclosure: While I never bought a "Hootie" CD or saw them in concert, I kinda like the band.)
But let's return to something that Woodbury said above, namely that:
Rolling Stone’s attempt to excuse its journalistic shortcomings because they were “too accommodating” of the alleged victim, “Jackie.”It's something Jessica Valenti discusses more broadly at The Guardian:
But these mistakes were not made because writers and editors were protecting a young woman they believed to be traumatized. Coll found that, despite the editors’ insistence that mistakes made were out of a heightened sensitivity to rape victims, “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.”Though she misses this part of the report:
“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,” he wrote.
Yet 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. Social scientists, psychologists and trauma specialists who support rape survivors have impressed upon journalists the need to respect the autonomy of victims, to avoid re-traumatizing them and to understand that rape survivors are as reliable in their testimony as other crime victims. These insights clearly influenced Erdely, Woods and Dana. "Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting," Woods said. "We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice."[Emphasis added.]First thing I have to say here is - maybe? They maybe did Jackie a disservice?
But I think it points to what seems to me to be a major indictment of the report - that in balancing need to respect the autonomy of the victims with getting all the facts, there's a danger in scaling back the necessary skepticism of those victims' allegations. Whether Rolling Stone was out to protect Jackie personally, it seems obvious to me that they simply weren't skeptical enough of her story out of fear of losing her cooperation. They shaded too much away from a more robust fact-check for that reason. For example there's this:
Jackie proved to be a challenging source. At times, she did not respond to Erdely's calls, texts and emails. At two points, the reporter feared Jackie might withdraw her cooperation. Also, Jackie refused to provide Erdely the name of the lifeguard who had organized the attack on her. She said she was still afraid of him. That led to tense exchanges between Erdely and Jackie, but the confrontation ended when Rolling Stone's editors decided to go ahead without knowing the lifeguard's name or verifying his existence. After that concession, Jackie cooperated fully until publication.Why else would they not pursue the lifeguard unless they were respecting Jackie's fear of him?
No, in the most general sense it was precisely because of that avoidance to re-traumatize someone making a rape allegation that led to the mistakes of Erdley and Rolling Stone.
As I wrote last November:
The bad reporting by Erdley and Rolling Stone did no one any favors, not Jackie, not UVA, and certainly not the next woman to be sexually assaulted on some college campus somewhere.While I have no idea when that'll happen, I do know two things: It'll be soon and it'll be that much harder for her to be taken seriously because Rolling Stone botched Jackie's story by not doing a better job of reporting on it and the subject of campus rape.