In December, not long after reporters began seriously questioning "A Rape on Campus" — the Rolling Stone story centered on a University of Virginia student named Jackie and her alleged fraternity house gang rape — the magazine's Managing Editor Will Dana issued a statement: "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." Critics assailed Dana for placing blame on a college student and her account, rather than the Rolling Stone staff's failure to vet that account, which became among the most trafficked pieces the magazine has ever published.
In the Columbia Journalism School report on the story — issued Sunday night, exactly four months after Dana's note, and clocking in at 12,644 words — Dana explained his reaction to his critics. He was "pretty freaked out," he said, and "regretted using that phrase pretty quickly."
"Early that evening, [Dana] changed course in a series of tweets," the report reads, describing the day the editor's note was issued. "'That failure is on us – not on her,' he wrote. A revised editor's note, using similar language, appeared the next day."
But again, on Sunday night, in a New York Times story published just before the Columbia report was released, Rolling Stone Publisher Jann Wenner was said to have also acknowledged the story's flaws — before calling Jackie a "'really expert fabulist storyteller' who managed to manipulate the magazine's editorial process."
Assuming responsibility while simultaneously pointing an outside finger is, it turns out, emblematic of Rolling Stone's entire approach to the aftermath of "A Rape on Campus." Even as the Columbia report was being released, Rolling Stone staffers were attributing the UVA debacle to their excessive compassion for someone they believed was a victim of sexual assault. But this conclusion contradicts the report's findings.
Rolling Stone's self-perceived "main fault was to be too accommodating of Jackie," bending the rules of journalism for her alleged comfort, treating her more as collaborator than source or subject. Wenner told the New York Times that Erdely "was willing to go too far in her effort to try and protect a victim of apparently a horrible crime. She dropped her journalistic training, scruples and rules and convinced Sean [Woods, her editor] to do the same." Dana told NPR that "[we] decided that it was important to believe a woman who said she was a survivor of a sexual assault — and to not question it, and to not feel like she was being kind of retried in public by journalists." Erdely released a statement saying that she "allowed my concern for Jackie's well-being, my fear of re-traumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts."
Yet according to the Columbia report, the shortcomings of "A Rape on Campus" were basic, even when Erdely wasn't purportedly keeping Jackie's needs as a victim in the front of her mind. When she reached out to the fraternity, for example — something Jackie wouldn't even see — Erdely sent only a curt "request for comment," without specific details for the fraternity to respond to or use to further investigate the incident. As the report puts it:
[The] explanation that Rolling Stone failed because it deferred to a victim cannot adequately account for what went wrong. Erdely's reporting records and interviews with participants make clear that the magazine did not pursue important reporting paths even when Jackie had made no request that they refrain. The editors made judgments about attribution, fact-checking and verification that greatly increased their risks of error but had little or nothing to do with protecting Jackie's position.
Rolling Stone, in other words, has taken an idea native to the world of feminist advocacy, that of unconditionally believing and supporting rape victims, and used it as a shield for its own journalistic errors. Many rape counselors preach unquestioned belief to both encourage victims to come forward and create safe communities for them when they do — but this is not the role of reporters. And despite Columbia's conclusion, Rolling Stone hasn't stopped emphasizing how its mindfulness of Jackie's status drove the failure to properly scrutinize her story.
Dana has said that if he "had been informed ahead of time of one problem or discrepancy with [Jackie's] overall story, we would have acted upon that very aggressively."
But Dana did know about at least one problem — that Erdely had not interviewed the man who allegedly arranged Jackie's assault. According to the Columbia report, Jackie was a "challenging source" — most notably, when Erdely pressed her for the last name of the man who allegedly orchestrated her rape, Jackie told Erdely she wasn't sure she'd be comfortable with Erdely reaching out to him, and then refused to give his last name. Then Jackie stopped responding to Erdely's calls and messages altogether, and Erdely became concerned, she said. Although Dana said he was unaware that Rolling Stone "did not know the man's full name and had not confirmed his existence," he reportedly joined Erdely's editor on the story, Sean Woods, in giving Erdely permission "to tell Jackie they would stop trying to find" the man behind Jackie's alleged assault, in order to ensure Jackie's continued participation in the story.
According to the report, Erdely could have also built the story around other alleged victims, instead of Jackie — but apparently none packed the same narrative punch Rolling Stone was looking for. The report states "Erdely's reporting led her to other, adjudicated cases of rape at the university that could have illustrated her narrative, although none was as shocking and dramatic as Jackie's."
Decisions like the one to not contact Jackie's alleged attackers, Dana explained to NPR on Sunday, were "very different than decisions we'd make about pretty much every other story that we've done in all the years that I've been here, out of what seemed like deference to someone who had been a victim of a terrible trauma." Still, the Columbia report reveals that Jackie never demanded that Erdely not independently identify the man who orchestrated her alleged attack. She never made it a condition of her participation, either, according to the report. So even in the moments when Jackie wasn't being "challenging" — when "deference to someone who had been a victim of a terrible trauma" wasn't a consideration — Erdely and her editors didn't do their due diligence.
Jackie had no problem, for example, when it came to Erdely talking to her friends to corroborate certain conversations in the story; she "never said that she would withdraw if Erdely sought out Ryan or conducted other independent reporting," the report said. But Erdely couldn't find the friends, she said, and her editors at a certain point stopped pushing her to do so (or, according to Erdely, never pushed her in the first place).
Another contradiction between Rolling Stone's recent public statements and the report's findings lies in the story's effect on the magazine's internal structure. Dana and Wenner told the New York Times that newsroom practices have been amended — Dana has issued more explicit guidelines, according to NPR. According to the Columbia report, however, senior editors, including the one in charge of the magazine's fact checkers, 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 in the report. "We just have to do what we've always done and just make sure we don't make this mistake again."
In another area of the report, Dana called the story an "individual failure," "procedural failure," and "institutional failure." Still, on Sunday, the magazine confirmed that no one at Rolling Stone would lose their job over it.
Jessica Testa is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Jessica Testa at email@example.com.
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