The 12,000-word investigation into Rolling Stone magazine’s publication of a bogus story on a gang rape at the University of Virginia has been released. It is three thousand words longer that reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely's original story "A Rape on Campus" that relied on uncorroborated allegations by a woman identified only as "Jackie," who said she had been attacked and raped by members of a fraternity on the U Va campus.
The investigation into Erdely's story was led by Columbia University School of Journalism Dean Steve Coll.
When it was announced that Rolling Stone was going to make public the report, I wrote a blog post headlined “Like a Rolling Stone: You Don’t Have to Have Two Pulitzers under Your Belt to Know How the Magazine Got It Wrong."
I argued in the post that we know already that Rolling Stone blew it because Jackie's allegations fit so nicely into the prejudices of the reporter and editors that not even basic reporting was done. A southern university with a fraternity system–what atmosophere could be more conducive to producing preppie sociopathic gang rapists? Steve Coll has two Pulitzers. Here is a report on the results of the investigation from the Washington Post, whose reporter helped blow the whistle on Erdely's story.
Did the Coll report address the prejudices got in the way of reporting? Tepidly:
The problem of confirmation bias – the tendency of people to be trapped by pre-existing assumptions and to select facts that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones – is a well-established finding of social science.
Instead of simply saying that one should report a story before writing and publishing it, the Coll committee says:
The story's blowup comes as another shock to journalism's credibility amid head-swiveling change in the media industry. The particulars of Rolling Stone's failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail.
Let me get this straight: there needs to be a “revitalized consensus in newsrooms” that reporters make calls, do the necessary legwork, and conduct interviews before their stories are published? I'm no fan of the mainstream media, but things are far worse than I expected if reporters now need a "consensus" to remind that you they must report a story before allowing a source to use them to lodge damaging and possibly career-ending allegations.
And this is rich:
The magazine's records and interviews with participants show that the failure of "A Rape on Campus" was not due to a lack of resources. The problem was methodology, compounded by an environment where several journalists with decades of collective experience failed to surface and debate problems about their reporting or to heed the questions they did receive from a fact-checking colleague.
No, there appears to have been no lack of resources. This was pure malfeasance.
And–yes–a fact checker, a freelancer, the lowliest person on the journalistic totem pole, hated by reporters who loath being asked banal but often revealing questions, spotted problems in the reporting—excuse me, “methodology”—and editors brushed these questions aside. The questions were basic, and should have surfaced earlier in the process.
As I said in my original post about the then-forthcoming results of the Coll report, I am an avid reader of what I think of as journalistic porn—the after-the-fact investigations of journalistic fiascos. I was was fascinated by the Janet Cook escapade, wherein her story of an inner city child addict named “Jimmy” won a Pulitzer before unraveling, as I was by Stephen Glass, the New Republic fabulist, whose stories about creepy Republicans turned out to be imagination-based. In both these instances, editorial prejudices allowed the stories to be published.
The Coll committee’s report does supply details on how this unreported story saw the light of day and they are shocking. The number of people who were not located or interviewed is truly astonishing. For example, reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely didn’t bother to talk to the three friends to whom gang rape accuser “Jackie” allegedly confided her alleged rape:
"They were always on my list of people" to track down, Erdely said of the three. However, she grew busy reporting on UVA's response to Jackie's case, she said. She doesn't remember having a distinct conversation about this issue with Woods, her editor. "We just kind of agreed. … We just gotta leave it alone." Woods, however, recalled more than one conversation with Erdely about this. When Erdely said she had exhausted all the avenues for finding the friends, he said he agreed to let it go.
Still, I found the specific revelations, shocking though they were, somehow not quite as riveting as one might expect for the simple reason that they were so predictable. It was glaringly obvious to even casual readers that the story had not been reported. If there is a surprise in all this, it is that Erdely will continue writing for Rolling Stone, and her editor, Sean Woods, is to remain on staff.
I want to focus on two aspects of the disaster where Coll & Co. fail. First, Coll and his fellow investigators uncritically accept the notion that there is a widespread “rape culture” on U.S. campuses. That idea was one that motivated Erdely and made her an such an easy mark:
"The overarching point of the article," Erdely wrote in response to questions from The Washington Post last December, was not Jackie, but "the culture that greeted her and so many other UVA women I interviewed, who came forward with allegations, only to be met with indifference."
To be clear, rape and murder are the most heinous crimes there are. Any time a woman lodges an accusation that she has been raped, it should be taken seriously and investigated sensitively but thoroughly. But inflated statistics that there is a “rape culture” on campus create a climate that can lead to uncritical acceptance of an accusation. The widely-used and promoted-by-the-Obama administration one-in-five figure for women on campus who have been victims of rape has repeatedly been debunked.
I note in passing that the Coll investigation cites rape information from a Center for Public Integrity study that specifically and compellingly has been discredited by Christina Hoff Sommers. You can read her report “The Media Is Making College Rape Culture Worse” here.
Both the accuser and the accused deserve to be heard—Rolling Stone did not bother to give the accused a chance. Indeed, the reporter was too sloppy to ascertain if a gang rape had taken place, though she did produce a story that smeared an entire fraternity. In its recommendations for improving reporting on college rape accusations, the Coll committee proposes:
Balancing sensitivity to victims and the demands of verification.
Again: Ya think?
The other point I want to note is that the investigation seems to regard the fraternity and university officials as “collateral damage.” They were not collateral damage by any stretch of the imagination. They took a direct hit.
The Coll report seems to indicate that the real damage was done to young women who will now not be willing to come forward with allegations of rape. Let us hope this is not the case, but let us also hope that this experience reminds administrators and journalists that such allegations must be proven. Federal guidelines for campuses now almost eliminate the right to due of the accused—in a way, this story was the journalistic version of those guidelines. The Coll report doesn’t quite seem to have grasped this.
It appears that lessons were not learned:
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."
Yet better and clearer policies about reporting practices, pseudonyms and attribution might well have prevented the magazine's errors. The checking department should have been more assertive about questioning editorial decisions that the story's checker justifiably doubted. [Managing editor Will] Dana said he was not told of reporting holes like the failure to contact the three friends or the decision to use misleading attributions to obscure that fact.
How pathetic. Rolling Stone doesn’t need to be “clearer” about basic reporting protocols, the sorts of things every reporter must do before running with a story. The magazine needs to be clearer that prejudices must not sideline reporting. The magazine has retracted and apologized for the story–that is the least it could do in the light of the facts.
It should also consider asking Ms. Erdely and Mr. Woods to close the door on the way out.