The watchdogs at the Columbia Journalism School have released their long-awaited autopsy of the infamous Rolling Stone rape story, and their condemnation speaks for itself:
“(It) is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision, and fact-checking. The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing (the story) so prominently, if at all.”
This verdict, rendered on Sunday night, was not a surprise – the magazine’s story about a purported gang rape at a University of Virginia frat basically fell apart within weeks of its Nov. 19 publication, as I noted here twice in early December – but the exhaustive independent report lays bare the malpractices in withering detail. And it offers useful (albeit self-evident) advice on how journalists, especially those who report rape allegations, should practice their craft.
This story was the journalistic equivalent of a nuke plant meltdown. All the control systems failed, and everyone at every level blamed everyone else for the failure. But the core reason for the disaster was that, at every level, the story was deemed Too Good to Fail.
The biggest failure, of course, was that reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely hung the whole story on one anonymous source – “Jackie,” the purported victim. At a time when lots of media outlets were reporting on campus rape, and on instances when college administrators were slow or insensitive in their dealings with campus rape, Jackie offered an uncommonly grisly tale that was guaranteed to cut through the media clutter and put Rolling Stone in front of the pack.
In short, Jackie’s tale was apparently too juicy to verify. According to the CJS report, Erdely and her editors ignored “basic, even routine journalistic practice.”
Jackie told Erdely that she had mentioned a gang rape to three friends shortly after the incident supposedly took place, and that the friends had dissuaded her from reporting it. One of those friends had supposedly said to her, “I don’t want to be part of whatever little s–t show you’re running.” But Erdely never bothered to track down the friends, to see whether they verified Jackie’s derogatory account of their behavior. Turns out, they all dispute her account.
The CJS investigators found the three friends. They all said that they would’ve spoken to Erdely, had she asked. The guy who supposedly demeaned Jackie’s rape claim as a “s–t show” said he had voiced no such thing. And they all contradicted Jackie’s core allegation: Whereas she had told Erdely that the gang rape was orchestrated by a frat member who worked as a lifeguard at a campus acquatic center, she had told the three friends that the gang rape was orchestrated by a chemistry class student named Haven Monahan.
If only Erdely had talked to these friends, she might well have begun to question Jackie’s credibility as a source (especially as a source tasked with carrying a 9000-word story). If she had heard that the purported rape ringleader had a name, Haven Monahan, she might well have tried to find him. Turns out, however, that there is no such person at the University of Virginia named Haven Monahan – because the Charlottesville police looked in vain.
As the CJS report says, this episode “reaffirms a truism of reporting: Checking derogatory information with subjects is a matter of fairness, but it can also produce surprising new facts.”
Erdely spoke with the CJS investigators: “In retrospect, I wish somebody had pushed me harder” about reaching out to the friends. “I guess I was surprised that nobody said, ‘Why haven’t you called them? But nobody did.” In other words, she blames her editors. But her editors blame her. Sean Woods told the CJS people: “I did repeatedly ask, ‘Can we reach these people? Can we?’ And I was told no.” But the head of the fact-checking department, Coco McPherson, blamed the editors: “These decisions not to reach out to those (friends) were made by editors above my pay grade.”
Nor did the editors insist that Erdely contact Phi Kappa Psi, the frat in question, and give it a chance to address Jackie’s detailed allegation. Erdely asked the frat only for a general comment on Jackie’s unspecified allegation.
From the CJS report: “If Erdely had provided (frat officials) the full details she possessed instead of asking simply for ‘comment,’ the fraternity might have investigated the facts she presented. After Rolling Stone published, Phi Kappa Psi said it did just that. (Chapter president Stephen) Scipione said in an interview that a review of the fraternity’s social media archives and bank records showed that the fraternity had held no date function or other party on the night Jackie said she was raped. A comparison of fraternity membership rolls with aquatic center employment records showed that it had no members who worked as lifeguards, Scipione added.” In other words, if the frat had been given the chance to provide that material to Erdely, she and her editors might’ve been prompted “to verify Jackie’s account more thoroughly.”
Meanwhile, Erdely and her editors decided to go with the lifeguard yarn – even though there was no such verifiable person. They even gave the unverified lifeguard a fake name in the story, “Drew.” Later, the Charlottesville cops did find a lifeguard who seemed to match Jackie’s description, but he was not a frat member and there was no evidence linking him to any assault. From the CJS report: “If Rolling Stone had located (this lifeguard) and heard his response to Jackie’s allegations, including the verifiable fact that he did not belong to Phi Kappa Psi, this might have led Erdely to reconsider her focus (on Jackie). In any event, Rolling Stone stopped looking” for the purported lifeguard-attacker.
So. How could a seasoned reporter and seasoned editors err so badly? The CJS report says they got hooked on Jackie’s drama, and those purported details, coupled with the University of Virginia’s “flawed record of managing sexual assault cases,” offered up a narrative that was too good to resist. As the report dryly noted, “The problem of confirmation bias – the tendency of people to be trapped in pre-existing assumptions and to select facts that suypport their own views while overlooking contradictory ones – is a well-established finding of social science. It seems to have been a factor here.”
It’d be nice to think that Rolling Stone‘s humbling will deter all journalists from misbehaving forevermore, but alas, human nature doesn’t work that way. Occasional fabulists, plagiarists, and slipshod practitioners will always be with us – just as they have in recent memory. And things could get worse, the CJS report warns, because there are fewer editors and fact-checkers in our cost-cutting digital era. All we can do, in this noisome media culture, is hew as best we can to the highest standards, for the sake of craft and one’s peace of mind.
And Columbia Journalism School dean Steve Coll, an author of the rape story report, has a timely warning: “(T)here are a lot of new entrants and a lot of young self-educating reporters who need a way to talk about these practices at a level of real ethical detail and seriousness. Because if you get it wrong, that can not only have consequences that are serious for others but you can end your career, real quickly.”