Rolling Stone’s Big Journalism #Fail
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Rolling Stone’s “shock narrative” about sex assaults at the University of Virginia was rife with bad journalism, and the magazine has nobody but its own staff to blame, Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll said Monday.
The magazine pledged to review its practices and removed the discredited article from its website, but publisher Jann S. Wenner said he won’t fire anyone despite the blistering critique of his magazine.
The fraternity where the student identified in the article as “Jackie” said she was gang-raped announced Monday that it will “pursue all available legal action against the magazine.”
Columbia’s review “demonstrates the reckless nature in which Rolling Stone researched and failed to verify facts in its article that erroneously accused Phi Kappa Psi of crimes its members did not commit,” its statement said.
Wenner said any failures were isolated and described Jackie as “a really expert fabulist storyteller” who managed to manipulate the magazine’s journalism process.
“Obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep,” he told The New York Times.
But blaming Jackie is the wrong lesson to take, Coll said.
“We do disagree with any suggestion that this was Jackie’s fault,” Coll said at a news conference in New York, calling the article an object lesson in what NOT to do in journalism. “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,” the report found.
University President Teresa A. Sullivan said the article hurt efforts to fight sexual violence, tarred the school’s reputation, and falsely accused some students “of heinous, criminal acts and falsely depicted others as indifferent to the suffering of their classmate.”
Some students have called for disciplinary action against Jackie. Her lawyer, Palma Pustilnik, told The Associated Press on Monday that “we are not making any comment at all at this time.”
Others worried that other women will suffer.
“This is probably going to discourage other sexual assault survivors from coming forward,” said Maggie Rossberg, a second-year nursing student from Crozet, Virginia.
The university has not said how many rape reports it has received since Rolling Stone published “A Rape on Campus” last November. But in a response to the AP’s public records request, it said five sex assaults had been reported to the Dean of Students office by Nov. 23, 2014, following an increase from 16 to 31 to 40 in the previous full academic years.
The story horrified readers, unleashed protests on the Charlottesville campus and sparked a national discussion about sex assaults. Charlottesville police launched a separate investigation, which they suspended two weeks ago for lack of evidence even while publicly appealing for Jackie to cooperate. Her lawyer declined to make her available to police or the team at Columbia.
The review was requested by Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana, who apologized again Monday as he retracted the article. Author Sabrina Rubin Erdely also apologized, saying she would not repeat the same mistakes.
But Sheila Coronel, the journalism school’s dean of academic affairs, said “nothing ever disappears on the Internet.”
The report found three major flaws in the magazine’s reporting methodology: Erdely did not try to contact the three friends, instead taking Jackie’s word for it that one of them refused to talk; She failed to give enough details of the alleged assault when she contacted the fraternity for comment, which made it difficult for the organization to investigate; and Rolling Stone did not try hard enough to find the person Jackie accused of orchestrating the assault.
Dana and Erdely both said they had been too accommodating of Jackie’s requests not to contact others. Coll took both to task for seeking shelter in being overly sensitive to an alleged rape victim. “The evidence doesn’t support” this explanation, he said, since the magazine also failed to investigate leads that Jackie hadn’t asked them not to pursue.
To rebuild trust among its readers, Coll said, the magazine should adopt the best practices of other leading media organizations, including banning the use of pseudonyms, being particularly cautious to share detailed allegations with the accused so that they can fully and fairly respond, and being transparent to readers about what the authors know and don’t know.
“Clearer attribution is the best defense,” Coll said.
The university, meanwhile, created a group of students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents and board members to explore how to improve the safety and well-being of sexual assault survivors and other students. The effort is focusing on prevention, institutional response and campus culture, holding town meetings and preparing recommendations for changes.
The magazine’s failures “may be discouraging women from coming out publicly for fear that they will be questioned as Jackie was,” Coronel acknowledged. But she said “I always believe in silver linings.”