What Columbia University’s Investigation Reveals About the Rolling Stone UVA Rape Story

Columbia University’s School of Journalism has released its report investigating what went wrong with Rolling Stone’s story of a rape at UVA, written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely. Among its conclusions:

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.”

Yet better and clearer policies about reporting practices, pseudonyms and attribution might well have prevented the magazine’s errors. The checking department should have been more assertive about questioning editorial decisions that the story’s checker justifiably doubted. Dana said he was not told of reporting holes like the failure to contact the three friends or the decision to use misleading attributions to obscure that fact.

Stronger policy and clearer staff understanding in at least three areas might have changed the final outcome:

Pseudonyms. Dana, Woods and McPherson said using pseudonyms at Rolling Stone is a “case by case” issue that requires no special convening or review. Pseudonyms are inherently undesirable in journalism. They introduce fiction and ask readers to trust that this is the only instance in which a publication is inventing details at its discretion. Their use in this case was a crutch – it allowed the magazine to evade coming to terms with reporting gaps. Rolling Stone should consider banning them. If its editors believe pseudonyms are an indispensable tool for its forms of narrative writing, the magazine should consider using them much more rarely and only after robust discussion about alternatives, with dissent encouraged.

Checking Derogatory Information. Erdely and Woods made the fateful agreement not to check with the three friends. If the fact-checking department had understood that such a practice was unacceptable, the outcome would almost certainly have changed.

Confronting Subjects With Details. When Erdely sought “comment,” she missed the opportunity to hear challenging, detailed rebuttals from Phi Kappa Psi before publication. The fact-checker relied only on Erdely’s communications with the fraternity and did not independently confirm with Phi Kappa Psi the account Rolling Stone intended to publish about Jackie’s assault. If both the reporter and checker had understood that by policy they should routinely share specific, derogatory details with the subjects of their reporting, Rolling Stone might have veered in a different direction.

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