Could Sabrina Erdely Actually Be Fired, Anyway?

After the Rolling Stone-Columbia Graduate School of Journalism investigation of the problematic UVA rape story was released on Sunday, the question immediately surfaced: hang on, journalists aren't getting fired over this? The reporter who penned the article, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, will continue writing for the magazine, Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana clarified. But it's worth asking: Even if Dana had made a different decision, could he have fired Erdely? After all, Erdely was not technically a member of the magazine staff. She was, and remains, a contributing editor.

So, first off, what exactly does the title of contributing editor entail? According to career website Inside Jobs:

A contributing editor always contributes, but may not edit. The title basically means that you are a writer who has become more than just an occasional contributor to a certain magazine or online publication; you are a regular contributor with a steady gig. So what’s the “editor” designation all about? In most cases, it’s more of a title of respect than a descriptive title.

However, while a contributing editor may command more respect and write stories on a more regular basis for a publication, at the end of the day they are still a freelance contributor. Typically, a freelance contributor is not on a company’s payroll, but is instead paid as an independent contractor.

According to UNC Charlotte Office of Legal Affairs’ outline of independent contractor rules of thumb, independent contractors cannot be fired at will. Rather, the only way that an independent contractor’s service to a company can be formally discontinued is if the contractor produces work that does not meet contract specifications, outlined at the outset of a project.

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It's impossible to guess what may have appeared in the mutual contract between Erdely and Rolling Stone — assuming such a contract existed — but a likely condition would be that the reporting and article were accurate, up to basic journalistic standards, and thoroughly vetted to the best of the reporter’s abilities and resources.

That said, Rolling Stone will not be pursuing any legal action against Erdely — far from it, she'll continue writing. Moreover, according to the report, Dana did not isolate the responsibility of the story to Erdely as an “individual failure,” but rather assigned responsibility to himself, as well as the magazine’s fact checkers and other editors. He described the failure as such:

...procedural failure, an institutional failure…Every single person at every level of this thing had opportunities to pull the strings a little harder, to question things a little more deeply, and that was not done.

Dana is right to accept responsibility and to spread the blame amongst the entire team that was involved in the production of the article. While the problems with the story may have started at a reporting level, they continued up the rungs of the journalistic hierarchy that is instilled to ensure the accuracy of a story.

But, to answer anyone calling for the firing of at least one person within the magazine, there’s a good chance Erdely could have been fired for the reporting she produced in this instance.

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