The key decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative — indifference to campus rape — and then go off in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative.
First, some essential links:
The author’s apology: Statement From Writer of Rolling Stone Rape Article, Sabrina Erdely.
New York Times account: Rolling Stone Article on Rape at University of Virginia Failed All Basics, Report Says
Huffington Post’s summary. Rolling Stone’s UVA Rape Story Was A ‘Journalistic Failure’ That Could’ve Been Avoided, Columbia Finds
Listen to many of the players talk about this story in David Folkenflik’s report for NPR.
Second, a few disclaimers:
The authors, Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs, and Derek Kravitz, a postgraduate research scholar at Columbia, took this on voluntarily. Rolling Stone did not pay them. They did it as a public service and a gift to the profession of journalism. They did it because they thought it was important. As a journalism professor, I am grateful to them for this work. Thank you!
I teach in a competing program at NYU. Factor that in as you evaluate what I have to say, some of which is critical.
Overall, I think the report is impressively reported and soundly reasoned. It’s a hugely valuable record from which journalists and students of journalism will draw lessons for years. I wish we had studies just like it for other big screw-ups, like this one.
My notes and commentary:
1. Asking “how could this happen?” is not the same as asking, “what could have prevented it?” The authors chose to focus their study on prevention — steps not taken that would have avoided disaster — rather than tracing those mistakes to their origins, which might include, for example, bad ideas or rotten assumptions. It’s a defensible decision, but it does have consequences. These ripple through the report.
2. This is an amazing passage:
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.”
It’s amazing because it leaves Rolling Stone editors with a tautological explanation. How could we have screwed up so badly? Because this time we screwed up really badly. The way to prevent another mistake like this is to make sure we don’t make this mistake again. A remarkable conclusion, considering the stakes. To their credit, the authors of the report don’t buy this one bit.
3. “The editors invested Rolling Stone’s reputation in a single source,” say the authors of the report. I think they’re right. Will Dana, managing editor of Rolling Stone, says they’re wrong:
Mr. Dana said he had reached many of the same conclusions as the Columbia report in his own efforts to examine the article, but he disagreed with the report’s assertion that the magazine had staked its reputation on the word of one source. “I think if you take a step back, our reputation rests on a lot more than this one story,” he said.
The point is not that your reputation accumulated over time rests on one story, but that one story at the wrong time can ruin it. I’d want my managing editor to understand that. Wouldn’t you?
4. “In hindsight,” the report says, “the most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was to accept that Erdely had not contacted the three friends who spoke with Jackie on the night she said she was raped. That was the reporting path, if taken, that would have almost certainly led the magazine’s editors to change plans.” What the authors mean is not “most consequential decision.” They mean “easiest route to preventing disaster.” You were so close! Contact the friends and the story falls apart. That’s what they mean.
5. 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. 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.
6. Not that it’s entirely missing. The basic facts are there:
Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show “what it’s like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture,” according to Erdely’s notes of the conversation.
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.
7. This is from Paul Farhi’s Nov. 28 account in the Washington Post:
So, for six weeks starting in June, Erdely interviewed students from across the country. She talked to people at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. None of those schools felt quite right. But one did: the University of Virginia, a public school, Southern and genteel, brimming with what Erdely calls “super-smart kids” and steeped in the legacy of its founder, Thomas Jefferson.
None of those schools felt quite right. What kind of “feel” is this? It’s feeling for a fit between discovered story and a prior — given — narrative.
8. “Mr. Dana said the article stemmed from a feeling he and other senior editors had over summer that the issue of unpunished campus rapes would make a compelling and important story,” read Ravi Somaiya’s Dec. 7 report in the New York Times. There’s the prior narrative I mentioned. It didn’t start with Sabrina Rubin Erdely. She was sent on a search for where to set it.
9. This is from Erik Wemple’s Dec. 5 column for the Post:
Observe how Erdely responded to a question about the accused parties in Jackie’s alleged gang rape. In that Slate podcast, when asked who these people were, she responded, “I don’t want to say much about them as individuals but I’ll just say that this particular fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi — it’s really emblematic in a lot of ways of sort of like elitist fraternity culture. It’s considered to be a kind of top-tier fraternity at University of Virginia.”
I don’t want to say much about them as individuals. In fact, she didn’t know anything about them “as individuals” and never located them — a major criticism in the report. Asked about contacting these people, she answers with their fitness as an emblem.
10. It is therefore striking that Erdely’s public apology did not extend itself to Phi Kappa Psi. I think it should have.
11. The alternative to starting with a narrative and searching for a campus, a frat and a survivor’s story that can serve as your emblem was pointed out by Reason magazine’s Robby Soave: Start with a proven case: two former Vanderbilt University football players convicted of gang raping a female student during a night of drinking and drug use. Dig in on that. Then find another and dig in on that. It’s true that “you always try to contact the accused” is very, very basic to good journalism. But let your reporting drive the narrative, rather than the other way around— this is also very basic. Yet it doesn’t get framed that way (as a basic error) in the report.
12. Sometimes the Rolling Stone journalists quoted in the Columbia report appear to be saying this was “Jackie’s story.” It was told from Jackie’s point of view, they say. Because it was so powerful, because they found her credible. Then at other times they give the impression that it was not about Jackie at all. It’s about the culture of indifference that greets women who try to report rape on college campuses. They could have dropped Jackie and told many other stories, Will Dana says in the report. This is Erdely responding to the Post’s nagging questions in December:
“I could address many of [the questions] individually… but by dwelling on this, you’re getting sidetracked,” she wrote in an e-mail response to The Post’s inquiry. “As I’ve already told you, the gang-rape scene that leads the story is the alarming account that Jackie — a person whom I found to be credible — told to me, told her friends, and importantly, what she told the UVA administration, which chose not to act on her allegations in any way — i.e., the overarching point of the article. THAT is the story: the culture that greeted her and so many other UVA women I interviewed, who came forward with allegations, only to be met with indifference.”
This was Jackie’s story. No, it’s about the culture of indifference. How can both be true? If she’s the perfect emblem then both are true. This is the belief that overtook the Rolling Stone staff. But what made them vulnerable to that belief?
13. “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” says deputy managing editor Sean Woods in the report. This is Rolling Stone’s Maginot Line. “We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”
Erdely added: “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.” 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.
Indeed. None was.
14. Part of what made Rolling Stone editors vulnerable to the “emblem of…” problem was some seriously dated thinking about credibility, in which it’s said to be sort of like charisma. You have charisma or you don’t. You “have” credibility or you don’t. If a source is felt to be credible, the entire story can ride on that. Your colleagues are credible, so it doesn’t occur you to ask if they could all be missing something.
A dramatic high point for this kind of thinking comes during Hanna Rosin’s incredible podcast interview with Sabrina Erdely. Rosin asks near the end of it: If you were Jackie’s lawyer, how would you prove her case? (Go to 6:35 on this clip and listen.) The author’s reply: “I found her story to be very— I found her to be very credible.”
15. It’s almost like, if you have credibility you don’t need proof. That’s an absurd statement, of course, but here’s how they got there (without realizing it.) Instead of asking: what have we done in telling Jackie’s story to earn the skeptical user’s belief? you say: I’m a skeptical journalist, I found her story believable, so will the users. Voilà! Credibility. Will Dana is one of the best editors in New York. Who “has” more credibility than him? No one! He finds her story believable. Doesn’t that “give” it credibility too?
16. Bit by bit the readers get eclipsed from this view. Don’t take our word for it, see for yourself: that logic gets eclipsed too. (Don’t take her word for it, listen to Jackie’s friends talk about the attacks. Rolling Stone dispensed with that.) In fact, credibility isn’t like charisma, which you have or don’t. It’s a transaction between journalists and readers. Readers have to trust, yes, but journalists have to realize that they cannot put too great a strain on the reader’s trust. “A Rape on Campus” did that, repeatedly. But the journalists involved didn’t realize what they were doing. Why not?
I wish the Columbia report, as good as it is, told us more than it does about that. “How could this happen?” is harder to answer than “what would have prevented it?” This was our best chance to find out.
After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links
A lot has been written about the Columbia report. (Naturally I hope you’ve read my post.) For those seeking further understanding, the five best things I found are:
Richard Bradley at his site: In the End, It’s All About Rape Culture—or the Lack Thereof. Bradley is a a former George magazine editor who was duped by Stephen Glass, a famous fabricator of stories at the New Republic. He was the first journalist to raise serious doubts about the Rolling Stone story. (See Is the Rolling Stone Story True?, Nov. 24, 2014.) He should be listened to on the report.
Leah Finnegan at Gawker. Jann Wenner Is a Big Dumb Idiot. “Here’s what happened at Rolling Stone: pathological conflict-avoidance. Every workaround deployed in this story, from not securing the alleged rapist’s name before publication to not interviewing the rape victim’s friends, was put in place in order to avoid a difficult, uncomfortable situation.”
Megan McArdle at Bloomberg View, Rolling Stone Can’t Even Apologize Right. “The same extraordinary features that made this story so potent also made it unlikely that anyone was going to be able to offer a convincing defense; you can claim that a one-on-one date rape was actually consensual, but that’s not a plausible explanation for a gang rape that took place on top of a bed of broken glass. So if you start by assuming the story is true, you also assume that you’re not going to get much worth printing from the perpetrators.”
Clay Shirky in the New Republic, Skeptical review isn’t a step in some journalistic production line: It’s the product. My NYU colleague Clay Shirky says the report could have been three sentences long: “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 could have gone into a appendix.
Rosin interviews Erdely. Anyone who wishes truly to understand this episode should, after absorbing Columbia report, go back and listen to the podcast interview Hanna Rosin of Slate did with Rolling Stone author Sabrina Erdely, Nov. 27, 2014. It’s all “in” there, if you listen closely enough. Rosin’s rising incredulity, Erdely’s lack of confidence in her own story are both palpable— and deeply telling.