NEW YORK -- Rolling Stone’s discredited story of an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia amounts to a “journalistic failure that was avoidable,” Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism concluded in an exhaustive report published Sunday night.
“The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking,” the authors wrote. “The magazine set aside 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.”
In a Nov. 19 story, Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely described in horrific detail how a UVA student given the pseudonym Jackie was lured two years earlier by her date into a dark room at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house and brutally raped by seven men. But the Washington Post, and other news outlets, soon discovered inconsistencies in the riveting account that served as the crux of Erdely’s 9,000-word bombshell, “A Rape on Campus.”
Rolling Stone apologized on Dec. 5 for the article, but did not fully retract it. The magazine continued to face questions over Erdely’s reporting -- notably why she didn’t interview three of Jackie’s friends quoted in the story or the alleged perpetrators -- and the editorial process that allowed such a flimsy story to run. Meanwhile, Erdely, deputy managing editor Sean Woods, her editor on the piece, and Will Dana, the magazine’s managing editor, went silent in the face of scrutiny.
On Dec. 22, Rolling Stone founder and publisher Jann Wenner announced Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism would conduct an independent investigation, the results of which were revealed Sunday. Upon publication of the report, Rolling Stone retracted the story.
It’s long been clear that Rolling Stone screwed up, and the editorial breakdown is arguably the magazine’s biggest in its nearly half-century existence. Also, the Charlottesville police, after conducting 70 interviews, already concluded last month that there is no evidence to support Jackie’s claims in the article.
So in a broad sense, the roughly 13,000-word Columbia report confirms what’s already known: Rolling Stone didn’t exercise due diligence before publishing a controversial story that included serious allegations with no verifiable basis in reality.
But the Columbia report -- written by Dean of Academic Affairs Sheila Coronel, Dean Steve Coll and postgraduate research scholar Derek Kravitz -- fills in several gaps in the editorial process through interviews with Erdely, Woods and Dana. Jackie, through an attorney, declined to speak to the report’s authors.
The authors walk through several reporting lapses and make recommendations, such as Rolling Stone considering not using pseudonyms and for fact-checkers to be more assertive in the editorial process. But the report falls short of making recommendations about which of the principals, if any, should lose their jobs over the debacle. Wenner told The New York Times that Dana and Woods would keep their jobs and Erdely would continue writing for the magazine.
Dana, at one point, acknowledged to the authors: “It’s on me. I’m responsible.” And Woods spoke of this “extraordinarily painful and humbling experience.”
“I’ve learned that even the most trusted and experienced people -- including, and maybe especially, myself -- can make grave errors in judgment,” Woods said.
Still, the magazine’s top editors do not see any need to change their editorial system, including how articles are fact-checked, in the wake of this collapse.
“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 told the authors. “We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.”
The Columbia report details how Erdely repeatedly failed to do even rudimentary reporting that would’ve cast doubt on Jackie’s story, including independently verifying that the alleged ringleader even existed. Erdely also stuck with the story despite Jackie’s erratic behavior, which included her not responding to the writer at times and refusing to provide key names and information to support her claims.
Columbia’s authors zero in on three of Erdely’s reporting failures that should’ve been part of “basic, even routine journalistic practice -- not investigative effort.” They involve Erdely not contacting Jackie’s three friends referenced and quoted in the story, not providing details of Jackie’s claims to the fraternity when seeking comment, and not verifying that the alleged ringleader, given the pseudonym Drew in the story, in fact existed.
Erdely did not interview Jackie’s friends, whose quotes depicted them as callous and unsupportive of the alleged victim. The account, and the three friends’ quotes, came solely from Jackie.
“Journalistic practice -- and basic fairness -- require that if a reporter intends to publish derogatory information about anyone, he or she should seek the person’s side of the story,” the authors wrote.
The three friends disputed Jackie’s account in earlier media interviews and again in the Columbia report.
While Jackie didn’t assist Erdely in trying to reach the friends before publication, she also didn’t explicitly ask the writer not to contact them, according to the Columbia report.
Erdely told the Columbia team that the friends “were always on my list” of people to track down. Erdely said she and Woods, her editor, eventually agreed to “leave it alone” after not locating them. Woods claimed that he agreed only when he had believed Erdely exhausted all avenues of reporting, which she clearly did not.
While Erdely contacted Phi Kappa Psi’s local chapter president and national executive director for comment before publication, she did not provide details of Jackie’s allegations, such as the alleged ringleader supposedly being a lifeguard. Considering that no member of the fraternity worked at the university’s aquatic center, Jackie’s account could have quickly unraveled before publication had Erdely provided such information when seeking comment.
Erdely appeared to trust Jackie’s account largely because the alleged victim was referred to her by a UVA staffer working on sexual assault issues, as the writer sought examples for a story on the pervasiveness of these crimes on campuses nationwide.
Steve Scipione, chapter president of Phi Kappa Psi, told the authors that Rolling Stone’s process was “complete bullshit.”
“They weren’t telling me what they were going to write about,” he said. “They weren’t telling me any dates or details.”
Lastly, Jackie would not provide Erdely with the name of the alleged ringleader and the two had a tense exchange. “For a while, it seemed to Erdely as if the stalemate might lead Jackie to withdraw from cooperation altogether,” the Columbia authors wrote.
Erdely told Jackie on Oct. 20 that she needed the man’s name before publishing even if it didn’t appear in the story. Jackie stopped responding for a couple of weeks, but never demanded Rolling Stone “not try to identify the lifeguard independently.”
“She even suggested a way to do so -- by checking the fraternity’s roster,” the Columbia authors found. “Nor did she condition her participation in the story on Erdely agreeing not to try to identify the lifeguard.”
On Nov. 3, after conversations with her editor, Erdely informed Jackie they would only use the pseudonym Drew and not persist in trying to learn his name. Afterward, Jackie resumed contact with Erdely.
Erdely told the Columbia team that Jackie seemed unsure of the man’s name in a conversation after publication. “An alarm bell went off in my head,” Erdely recalled.
After doing some digging, she informed Woods of her concerns. The magazine acknowledged on Dec. 5 that it could not stand behind Jackie’s account, just as the The Washington Post was preparing a story that included the basic reporting that Erdely failed to do. “It was the worst day of my professional life,” Woods said.
Dana, who has been at Rolling Stone for nearly two decades, said the breakdown was both an “individual failure” and “procedural failure, an institutional failure.”
“Every single person at every level of this thing had opportunities to pull the strings a little harder,” he said, “to question things a little more deeply, and that was not done.”
The Columbia authors said that the editors found their “main fault was to be too accommodating of Jackie because she described herself as a survivor of a terrible sexual assault.”
It’s true that journalists need to be particularly cautious when reporting on sexual assault cases given the victims’ understandable fears around their stories becoming public. But the main fault seems to be that a high-profile writer and top magazine editors failed to fulfill the basic duties of their jobs -- jobs that they all still have.