Lessons from Rolling Stone’s “journalistic failure” and Columbia University’s report
Rolling Stone this week published a report by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism on the magazine’s “journalistic failure.” That failure was its story last year “A Rape on Campus,” about a gang rape that allegedly took place during a party at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia.
I consider the report, which is about 13,000 words, required reading for anyone who will ever write or edit a reported story. It also wouldn’t hurt to read it if you ever plan to read, watch of listen to such a story.
The report was commissioned by Rolling Stone after the Washington Post and others called into question the facts of the University of Virginia story, and even the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, told her editors that she no longer had confidence in the accuracy of the her piece. “A Rape on Campus” relied on a single source, the alleged rape victim, whom Erdely called Jackie in the story.
Rolling Stone has retracted the piece and taken it down, but the Internet Archive hosts an archived version.
The report released this week was created by Steve Coll, the Columbia journalism school’s dean and a Pulitzer-winning reporter; Sheila Coronel, the school’s dean of academic affairs; and Derek Kravitz, a postgraduate research scholar at Columbia. Neither the report’s authors nor the school were compensated, they and Rolling Stone say.
The academic trio tried to answer the question posed in the headline of the report as it appears on RollingStone.com: “What Went Wrong?” They succeeded, in very thorough fashion. But media theorist and NYU professor Clay Shirky, writing at NewRepublic.com, suggests that the whole thing should have come down to three sentences:
We investigated the matter thoroughly. We found no extenuating circumstances. The writers, editors, and fact-checkers at Rolling Stone abdicated the skepticism required by their profession.
“The rest,” Shirky writes, “is just an appendix.”
I agree, but I think the report is worth reading anyway, because it describes so clearly how that abdication can happen. Time after time, Erdely and her editors “did not pursue important reporting paths” that would likely have surfaced the massive problems underlying the story:
There were a number of ways that Erdely might have reported further, on her own, to verify what Jackie had told her. Jackie told the writer that one of her rapists had been part of a small discussion group in her anthropology class. Erdely might have tried to verify independently that there was such a group and to identify the young man Jackie described. She might have examined Phi Kappa Psi’s social media for members she could interview and for evidence of a party on the night Jackie described. Erdely might have looked for students who worked at the aquatic center and sought out clues about the lifeguard Jackie had described. Any one of these and other similar reporting paths might have led to discoveries that would have caused Rolling Stone to reconsider its plans. But three failures of reporting effort stand out. They involve basic, even routine journalistic practice – not special investigative effort. And if these reporting pathways had been followed, Rolling Stone very likely would have avoided trouble.
I don’t think your reading should stop with the report. Media critic Jay Rosen, who also teaches at NYU, wrote on his PressThink blog that the report failed to identify an even bigger problem with the UVA story.
In an early scene in the story, three friends of Jackie’s dissuade her from reporting the alleged attack for fear of what it might mean for her reputation on campus. Though Erdely describes this scene as an omniscient narrator, it turns out that the information came solely from Jackie, and that Erdely had not been able to find and interview the three friends. The Columbia report describes the decision to go ahead with the story without having interviewed the friends as “the most consequential decision” the magazine made that led to the journalistic failure.
The most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative and go in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative. The key term is emblematic. [From the report: "Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show 'what it’s like to be on campus now.'"] The report has too little to say about that fateful decision, probably because it’s not a breach of procedure but standard procedure in magazine-style journalism. (Should it be?) This is my primary criticism of the Columbia report: it has too little to say about the “emblem of…” problem …
Idea: Maybe “a single, emblematic college rape case” does not exist. Maybe the hunt for such was ill-conceived from the start. Maybe that’s the wrong way for Rolling Stone to have begun.
The story’s omniscient voice placed the reader at the scene of a shocking assault as well as a meeting between the victim and three friends on a Charlottesville street corner. It’s rarely clear in these scenes that everything we’re reading came from a single source Rolling Stone identified only as “Jackie.”
The Columbia report noted that “There is a tension in magazine and narrative editing between crafting a readable story—a story that flows—and providing clear attribution of quotations and facts. It can be clunky and disruptive to write ‘she said’ over and over.”
Beaujon writes, “Rolling Stone’s anti-clunk strategy, though, directly reflected a more basic problem with the story: The article’s fealty to narrative was more important than its commitment to reporting.”
This blog has written often about the questions addressed in the Columbia report. Similar discussions around the revelation that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o's late girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, never existed led to the B/R Blog’s invention of a journalism rule called Lennay’s Law: Tell us what you know is true, and tell us how you know it.
As is so often the case, following that dictum would have saved Rolling Stone this time. As complex as reporting and writing can be—and it can be as complex as life itself—at bottom it comes down to writers and editors being dogged in that skepticism Shirky wrote about, in constantly asking, “Really? Is that true? How do we know?”
More coverage and analysis:
What was the single point of failure at Rolling Stone? The authors of Columbia’s investigative report answer that and more, Columbia Journalism Review (Interview with Coll and Coronel)
Do scandals like Rolling Stone’s do lasting damage to journalism? Columbia Journalism Review