Columbia Journalism School’s Damning Report on That UVA Rape Story

Everything that could have gone wrong did.

The Phi Kappa Psi house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va.

The Phi Kappa Psi house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va.

Last night, the report by the team assigned by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to dissect what went wrong in Rolling Stone‘s story of a rape at the University of Virginia was made public. The 12,000-word result is a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of magazine journalism, and a cautionary tale that anyone reporting on controversial subjects — or reading about them — would do well to check out.

The author of the Rolling Stone story, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, once wrote for Philadelphia magazine; I worked with and liked and admired her then, and I feel the same way now. But parts of the Columbia report are difficult to read.

Here’s the first difficult passage, and it comes early on in the report. Emily Renda, a former UVA student who now is employed by the university, was the first to tell Erdely the story of “Jackie,” the name Rolling Stone used for the student who claimed to have been gang-raped by seven frat-bro wannabes at a party her freshman year. After Renda offers the account she heard from Jackie, she warns Erdely: “And obviously, maybe her memory of it isn’t perfect.”

As the report puts it, “Erdely’s notes set down her reply: ‘I tell her that it’s totally plausible.’”

It’s totally plausible because Erdely is a sensitive reporter who’s done her homework, and she knows that the trauma of sexual assault can cause victims’ accounts of what happened to them to be imperfect. But the quote reveals the mind-set with which Erdely approached her assignment: Even if what she hears about sexual assault along the way doesn’t seem “perfect,” or logical, or coherent, that’s okay; that’s how it is with survivors of such assaults.

The report goes on to note:

Social scientists, psychologists and trauma specialists who support rape survivors have impressed upon journalists the need to respect the autonomy of victims, to avoid re-traumatizing them and to understand that rape survivors are as reliable in their testimony as other crime victims. These insights clearly influenced Erdely, [her immediate editor, Sean] Woods and [RS managing editor Will] Dana. “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” Woods said. “We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.

What disservice, since Jackie was the one steering the ship when it came to the story she made up about having been attacked? (And if you doubt she made it up, the Washington Post has thoroughly and diligently debunked her story.) Well, Erdely and Rolling Stone might have saved Jackie from herself, and from becoming the poster child for false rape reports, subject to alarming hatred among so-called “men’s rights” advocates. In the Columbia report, Erdely herself says: “If this story was going to be about Jackie, I can’t think of many things that we would have been able to do differently. … Maybe the discussion should not have been so much about how to accommodate her but should have been about whether she would be in this story at all.”

So why, given that Jackie repeatedly wriggled out from under Erdely’s and the fact-checker’s questions about her trio of friends, the name of her attacker, etc., etc., did Rolling Stone go with the story it eventually published? Columbia’s investigators have an opinion on that, too: “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.” Erdely uses that word herself in explaining why she chose Jackie as the focus of her piece: She was “just the most dramatic example” of the problem of rape on college campuses.

That very drama might have been a clue that Jackie’s story was a little too good to be true. That’s what worried Richard Bradley, who blogged his doubts about the Rolling Stone story very soon after it first appeared. Bradley edited fabulist Stephen Glass when Glass wrote for the now-defunct George magazine, which, as Bradley put it, taught him a few lessons:

The experience was painful but educational; it forced me to examine how easily I had been duped. Why did I believe those insinuations about Bill Clinton-friend Vernon Jordan being a lech? About the dubious ethics of uber-fundraiser (now Virginia governor) Terry McAuliffe? The answer, I had to admit, was because they corroborated my pre-existing biases.

His final takeaway? “The lesson I learned: One must be most critical, in the best sense of that word, about what one is already inclined to believe.”

Now go back to what Erdely said to Renda right at the start of the reporting process: “It’s entirely plausible.”

Erdely isn’t alone in her culpability for the UVA mess. As the Columbia report notes, “Investigative reporters working on difficult, emotive or contentious stories often have blind spots. It is up to their editors to insist on more phone calls, more travel, more time, until the reporting is complete.” Sean Woods, who edited Erdely’s piece, the Columbia investigators conclude, “did not do enough” to press her to substantiate and cross-check her story. A fact-checker did her best to ascertain the accuracy of the piece, and raised questions that would have set off alarms about Jackie’s veracity — had they been addressed:

The checker did try to improve the story’s reporting and attribution of quotations concerning the three friends. She marked on a draft that Ryan – “Randall” under pseudonym – had not been interviewed, and that his “shit show” quote had originated with Jackie. “Put this on Jackie?” the checker wrote. “Any way we can confirm with him?” She said she talked about this problem of clarity with Woods and Erdely. “I pushed. … They came to the conclusion that they were comfortable” with not making it clear to readers that they had never contacted Ryan.

The fact-checker isn’t named in the report, because in the end, her superiors were responsible for making the decisions that led to the publication — and subsequent retraction — of a fabricated story. “In retrospect,” the Columbia report quotes Erdely as saying, “I wish somebody had pushed me harder.” Then she goes on: “But nobody did, and I wasn’t going to press that issue.” Why wasn’t she going to press it? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it was because by that point in the process — and you should read the full report to understand why — she knew or suspected that if she had, her story would have fallen apart.

The review answers some questions about Rolling Stone‘s process in putting the story together, and the aftermath of its publication. It doesn’t answer them all. The story was reviewed, pre-publication, by the magazine’s legal counsel. How’d it make it past that hurdle? “Erdely and the editors involved declined to answer questions about the specifics of the legal review, citing instructions from the magazine’s outside counsel, Elizabeth McNamara, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine. McNamara said Rolling Stone would not answer questions about the legal review of “A Rape on Campus” in order to protect attorney-client privilege.” In other words: Lawsuits are forthcoming. UVA will likely sue, as will the fraternity at which Jackie said the gang rape occurred.

And what, one is left wondering, would Rolling Stone have done differently? Not a whole hell of a lot, it seems. From the report:

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.”

So: Sensitive subject matter; lapses of judgment. And no guarantee whatsoever that the process will be any different the next time around. Gee, I wonder why journalists are held in such disregard.

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