In November of 2014, in the context of a feature about the ongoing problem of sexual assault at colleges and universities in the United States, Rolling Stone published a detailed and compelling account of a gang rape at the University of Virginia. But soon after publication, doubts about that central anecdote began to emerge. Other publications and pundits jumped on the cracks — some to correct what were seen as journalistic failures, some to undermine the premise that campus rape is a major concern.
Within a few weeks, Rolling Stone attached a long disclaimer (of sorts) to the top of the online version of “A Rape on Campus,” and the magazine commissioned the Columbia School of Journalism to do an in-depth examination of what went wrong. On Sunday, Steve Coll, the journalism school’s dean, Sheila Coronel, Columbia’s dean of academic affairs, and Derek Kravitz, a postgraduate researcher, issued their report.
At 13,000 words, it is about 50-percent longer than the original RS article, but for those with an interest in the continuing crisis on U.S. campuses, or in the current crisis in the science and business of investigative journalism, the report is well worth the time.
The findings are detailed and the recommendations are many, but early on in the report, there is this weighty takeaway:
Rolling Stone’s repudiation of the main narrative in “A Rape on Campus” 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 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.
An “avoidable” “failure” that rests squarely on each step of the magazine’s process. Rolling Stone, for its part is no doubt taking this pointed criticism to heart ... wait, what?
In an interview [with the New York Times] discussing Columbia’s findings, Jann S. Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone, acknowledged the piece’s flaws but said it represented an isolated and unusual episode. The problems with the article started with its source, Mr. Wenner said. He described her as “a really expert fabulist storyteller” who managed to manipulate the magazine’s journalism process. When asked to clarify, he said that he was not trying to blame Jackie, “but obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.”
Not trying to blame Jackie? There is absolutely nothing else to Wenner’s statement.
Wenner’s post-report take mirrors — make that “doubles down on” — the anyone-but-me-a-culpa issued in December by Rolling Stone’s managing editor, Will Dana: “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.”
As of this morning, Dana, in an interview with NPR, had slightly modified his tone. “The decisions that we made about this story are very different about the decisions we make about every other story,” he said, but then added what he saw as the reason, “in deference to this girl’s trauma.”
Because one of the big lessons of the Columbia report is “If you can’t prove it, don’t print it,” I’ll avoid a psycho-social analysis of Dana’s reference to “this girl,” but it is not a stretch to say that, while Dana does seem chastened by his magazine’s failures, he still can’t help but blame, if not the victim, at least the victimization.
Rolling Stone has already made it clear that there will be no disciplinary action taken against any of their employees involved with this story — and that is not necessarily the wrong decision. But taken in concert with the publisher’s and managing editor’s reactions, there is no evidence that this entire episode, from editing to publication to the Columbia J-School report, will have any lasting effect inside the magazine.
As media-watcher Craig Silverman, an adjunct professor at the journalism-focused Poynter Institute, observed, “Rolling Stone published a story that will live in journalistic infamy. Its response is to do absolutely nothing to prevent it from happening again.”
And that’s a problem for more than Rolling Stone, or even investigative journalism as a whole. As Emily Renda — a rape survivor cited in the Columbia report who worked on sexual assault issues as a staff member at U.Va. — noted in December, “The doubt cast on Jackie’s story has been feeding the myth that we have been combating for 40 years that women lie about rape.”
If Rolling Stone really wanted to act responsibly, it would not only accept blame for its own failings in the reporting and editing of last year’s story, and it would not only now apologize for again trying make the problem a “fabulist” woman or the extra sensitivity required to cover sexual assault, it would recommit to countering the myth Renda identifies.
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Note: As of last night, Rolling Stone has not only "retracted" its story, it has redacted it. The link to "A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA" now redirects to the magazine's re-posting of the Columbia report under the headline "Rolling Stone and UVA: The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Report" and a graphic that says "What went wrong?"