Questions and discrepancies arose soon after it was published. The Charlottesville, Virginia, Police Department declared that it was suspending its investigation due to a lack of evidence. And then Rolling Stone announced it would soon release a report in conjunction with Columbia University's School of Journalism that would essentially re-report the story "A Rape On Campus," which detailed an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity. Most people suspected the results would find the magazine at fault for the now-discredited article. The report, which was released Sunday evening, not only found that Rolling Stone got many things wrong in publishing the article, but the magazine also experienced a complete "journalistic failure." But how? It's a magazine that's been deeply entrenched in solid long-form narrative writing for decades. How did Rolling Stone get it so wrong?
First, let's note that, as author Sabrina Rubin Erdely said herself, "Reporting on rape has unique challenges." But despite that, she continues, "the journalist still has the responsibility to get it right." The report found that in her reporting, Erdely failed to perform basic, routine journalistic practices that likely would have saved Rolling Stone from a whole lot of trouble. But the issues went even further than that — as The New York Times reports, there were failures at every single stage in the editorial process: reporting, editing, and fact-checking. Here's a breakdown of, as the review title itself states, what went wrong.
1. It Was Basically A One-Source Article
Although more people than just Jackie were interviewed, the crux of the story was based on Jackie's account of what happened that night. The dialogue between Jackie and her friends from the night she was allegedly raped came from Jackie. The three friends were not contacted, and in the report, they stated that if they had been contacted by Erdely, they would have described the conversation after the alleged sexual assault differently than Jackie did, which, at the minimum, would have given Erdely a hint that there were discrepancies. Erdely did ask to speak to the friends — and Jackie said "OK," the report says — but when Jackie didn't respond to follow-ups for the friends' information, Erdely let it go.
2. It Didn't Seek The Other Side
Not only were Jackie's friends not contacted — the alleged rape suspects weren't either. In fact, Erdely never even knew the full real name of the main person who allegedly led the attack. If Erdely had pushed for his full name or more information, she might have found that there was no person matching that description, which is what the report found. But out of deference to Jackie's request, Erdely agreed to not contact Jackie's alleged rapists. The Columbia University report states, "Journalistic practice – and basic fairness – require that if a reporter intends to publish derogatory information about anyone, he or she should seek that person's side of the story."
3. Erdely Made Vague Requests For Comment
When Erdely did contact the fraternity chapter for comment, the report found that she did not provide enough details for the fraternity to provide a statement. Erdely was vague in her request for comment, stating only, "I've become aware of allegations of gang rape that have been made against the UVA chapter of Phi Kappa Psi." She left out the date of the attack, a description of the alleged suspect, and a description of the "date function." This did not give the fraternity enough information to investigate what Erdely was asking about.
Erdely might have withheld that information in order to prevent the fraternity from preemptively releasing the story with a positive spin, but the report found there was no reason to think it might have done so. If Erdely had provided the fraternity with details when asking for comment, she might have discovered the discrepancies.
4. There Was Too Much Trust
This statement is not to say Erdely shouldn't have trusted Jackie. As a rule, we should err on the side of believing rape victims, and the Charlottesville Police Department stressed that just because there was a lack of evidence "doesn't mean something terrible didn't happen." But as a journalist, Erdely had the responsibility to check Jackie's claims with basic facts — like the date of the function — which would have led her to ask Jackie more in-depth questions.
But there was also too much trust in each other and in the journalistic process. The editors trusted that Erdely was a skilled reporter, and if she found Jackie credible, then they did as well. Even as they found apparent gaps in reporting, managing editor Will Dana said, "I had a faith that as it went through the fact-checking that all this was going to be straightened out."
5. In That, The Editorial Process Failed
The editors made assumptions that these gaps in reporting would be figured out at a later date during a later process. But the editors, Dana and Sean Woods, who was the primary editor, should have made an attempt to rectify the obvious reporting holes immediately. In what the report calls "the most consequential decision," the editors allowed the story to be published without contacting the friends or the alleged suspects. The report states, "When Erdely said she had exhausted all the avenues for finding the friends, [Woods] said he agreed to let it go."
6. ...As Did The Fact-Checking Process
Magazines generally go through a rigorous fact-checking process in which a person who was not involved with the story checks every single fact, down to dates, spellings, but also quotes and claims. The fact checker on this story did do a thorough fact check — with Jackie. Again, Rolling Stone relied on one person to support an entire story that alleged a serious sexual assault as well as the university's alleged dismissal of it. The fact checker did ask the higher-up editors about the friends who were not quoted and was told it was fine.
7. It Used Pseudonyms Too Liberally
The report said the liberal use of pseudonyms was a bad choice. Erdely and her editors used the pseudonym "Drew" for the main alleged rape suspect, but they didn't even know the real name the fake one was replacing. The report stated, "Their use in this case was a crutch – it allowed the magazine to evade coming to terms with reporting gaps."
So, What's Next?
The New York Times reports that the Rolling Stone newsroom practices have been amended. But in the Columbia University investigation itself, the senior editors said this one-off story did not indicate a need for editorial change. Everyone will keep their jobs, and Dana said he doesn't think the editorial policies need an overhaul. Fact-checking chief Coco McPherson 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."
The authors of the investigation recommend clearer policies regarding pseudonyms, checking derogatory information with an accused source or other sources, and providing more details when seeking comment or checking facts.