Rolling Stone review finds troubling compromises in Erdely article

Magazine's editors say failings were an institutional anomaly

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The report, almost 13,000 words long, found mistakes by both Erdely and editors at Rolling Stone.

Marshall Bronfin | Cavalier Daily

Rolling Stone fully retracted its now-infamous article “A Rape on Campus” today following a report by the Columbia Journalism School, which documented a host of journalistic failings behind the story that thrust the University into the national spotlight last fall.

The article, which detailed an alleged Sept. 2012 gang rape at the University chapter of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, was removed from the website and replaced by the full version of the Columbia Journalism School report — which Managing Editor Will Dana describes as “painful” to read.

Totaling nearly 13,000 words, the investigatory report sharply criticizes a web of poor decision-making leading to the publication of an article which has since been identified by Poynter as journalism’s “Error of the Year” and by the Columbia Journalism Review as among 2014’s worst journalism.

Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner commissioned an investigation into the magazine’s editing and reporting practices in December when the article’s accuracy came under heavy scrutiny, following investigations by The Washington Post and other media outlets.

The final product, authored by Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll; Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs; and Derek Kravitz, the lead researcher on the project, was published Sunday on both the Journalism School and Rolling Stone’s websites, and will print in this week’s issue of Rolling Stone. The report comes two weeks after Charlottesville Police suspended its inquiry into the article’s allegations — the result of a months-long investigation unable to confirm the details “to any substantive degree.”

The article’s author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, and her editors told the report’s authors afterward that their biggest fault was being too sensitive to the concerns of Jackie and her requests not to reach out to her alleged attackers or the friends she said spoke with her on the night of her assault.

“Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” Erdely’s editor Steve Woods is quoted as saying in the report. “We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”

However, the CJS report says this error extended further, alleging Erdely and her editors frequently made concessions and failed to reach out to key sources “even when Jackie had made no request that they refrain.”

Coll, Coronel and Kravitz interviewed multiple University officials and community members for the report, along with several individuals involved in the Rolling Stone editing process, including Erdely. They also reviewed more than 400 pages of notes from Erdely documenting her reporting process.

The report’s authors attempted to reach out to Jackie for their investigation, but her lawyer said it was not in her best interest to speak with them. Jackie also declined to cooperate with police investigators during their investigation into the article’s claims.

Contacting Jackie’s friends

Throughout her months of reporting, Erdely neglected to contact the three friends Jackie says met up with her on the night of her attack — the “most consequential decision” in the reporting process, the Columbia report’s authors conclude.

The report documents some of Erdely’s efforts to make contact with the friends but determines she failed to adequately pursue their names independent of Jackie’s support. It also notes that at no time did Jackie threaten to stop cooperating if Erdely contacted the friends.

“That was the reporting path, if taken, that would have almost certainly led the magazine’s editors to change plans,” the report read.

All three friends interviewed with the authors of the report and said they would have spoken with Rolling Stone if they had been approached. Though Jackie told Erdely that she asked third-year Engineering student Ryan Duffin (“Randall”) to be interviewed and he refused, Duffin told the Columbia investigators that conversation never occurred.

The three friends — Duffin, third-year Architecture student Kathryn Hendley (“Cindy”) and third-year Commerce student Alex Stock (“Andy”) — have subsequently spoken to various media outlets, including The Cavalier Daily, and detailed an encounter with Jackie that differs substantially from what was reported in Rolling Stone.

Erdely told the report’s authors that she wished an editor had pushed harder in making her reach out to the three friends, though Woods said he did press multiple times and relented when Erdely said it would not be possible.

“Of course, just because an editor does not ask a reporter to check derogatory information with a subject, that does not absolve the reporter of the responsibility,” the Columbia report reads.

Woods told the report’s authors he opted to use pseudonyms rather than the friends’ actual names to protect them from possible embarrassment.

A Rolling Stone fact-checker, in reviewing a draft of the report, suggested edits which would have made it more clear that the publication had not contacted Jackie’s three friends, but her suggestions were ultimately overruled. Coco McPherson, the head of Rolling Stone’s fact-checking department, told the Columbia report authors she read a draft of the article after one of her fact-checkers and said she had confidence in the writers and editors involved.

The decision to not reach out to the three friends, she said, was made by editors “above my pay grade.”

Identifying “Drew”

Twice during the reporting process, Jackie stopped communication with Erdely. The second time came in October, after Erdely began pushing for Jackie to identify her attacker, whose full name she had still not revealed to Erdely.

Fearing Jackie would back out of the report, Erdely, Woods and Dana agreed to publish the account of Jackie’s alleged attack by identifying her primary attacker by a pseudonym — “Drew” — the same workaround they agreed upon for Jackie’s three friends.

Erdely made attempts to identify “Drew” independently, but after she was unable to do so, they agreed to use the pseudonym and pursue the angle no further, the review says. Part of this concession came out of a fear of alienating Jackie, who said she was still afraid of her attacker and hoped he would not find out about the article. According to the report, Jackie began cooperating with Erdely immediately after hearing the decision to use the pseudonym.

The report also states that Dana, who said he takes full responsibility for the article’s failings, was not aware that neither Woods nor Erdely knew the full name of “Drew,” nor of any agreement between Erdely and Jackie not to make efforts to identify him. Only after the article’s publication did Jackie finally offer Erdely his name — at which point she struggled with the spelling, a warning sign for Erdely as she said she herself grew concerned about the accuracy of her report.

With the name of the alleged attacker in hand, Erdely tried to confirm that the individual worked as a lifeguard or was a member of Phi Psi, but was unable to confirm any connection between Jackie and her now-named alleged perpetrator.

Asking for comment

The report’s authors say Erdely should have also offered her sources more specific details about the gang rape allegations when asking for comment.

In examining correspondence with both University officials and members of the local and national chapters of Phi Kappa Psi, the authors conclude Erdely offered only minimal information about the assault, potentially discouraging pre-emptive investigations which could have shed light on the discrepancies in Jackie’s account prior to publication.

Firmly believing Phi Psi President Stephen Scipione and then-National Executive Director Shawn Collinsworth already knew the details of the assault, Erdely merely asked whether they could comment on the allegations, according to her notes.

“It was complete bullshit,” Scipione said in the report of his interview with Erdely. “They weren’t telling me what they were going to write about. They weren’t telling me any dates or details.”

University officials were also asked for comment with relatively few specifics. Given the restrictions of federal privacy regulations, officials already could not speak to much of the allegations. This dynamic — coupled with administrators’ decision not to let Erdely interview with Associate Dean of Students Nicole Eramo, who handles many of the University’s Title IX cases — fueled a mistrust between Erdely and the University, the report says.

Erdely’s confidence in Jackie’s account was partly grounded in a lack of explicit denial from either the fraternity or the University, coupled with the fact that it was a University employee, Emily Renda, who connected Erdely with Jackie.

The report documents the initial conversation between Erdely and Renda, noting that Renda cautioned Jackie’s memory of the event might be flawed. Erdely reportedly responded, “It’s totally plausible.”

Follow-up conversations with Renda suggest the University was investigating Phi Psi, and Renda also made anonymous reference to Jackie’s assault in testimony before a Congressional subcommittee last summer — all reinforcing Erdely’s confidence in Jackie’s story.

Jackie carried a confident demeanor throughout the eight interviews she had with Erdely, and she spoke about the alleged assault in great detail. In follow-up conversations with the Rolling Stone fact-checker, Jackie even offered clarifying and factual corrections to her account — further bolstering the publication’s trust in her narrative.

But the belief that the University and those in the community believed Jackie’s narrative — which was communicated to the fact-checker as well — was misguided, the report concludes.

“[The article] said that Jackie’s friends and student activists at U.Va. ‘strongly supported her account,’” the report reads. “That implied that these friends had direct knowledge of the reported rape. In fact, the students supported Jackie as a survivor, friend and fellow campus reformer. They had heard her story, but they could not independently confirm it.”

Next steps

Moving forward, the report says Rolling Stone has not yet decided to make any institutional changes in the aftermath of the article. Instead, editors insist the failings were an anomaly in a system that generally produces high-quality journalism.

“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 in the report. “We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.”

In a letter introducing the report on Rolling Stone’s website, Dana said the publication is committed to developing solutions to the shortcomings identified in the report.

“We are also committing ourselves to a series of recommendations about journalistic practices that are spelled out in the report,” Dana said. “We would like to apologize to our readers and to all of those who were damaged by our story and the ensuing fallout, including members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and U.Va. administrators and students. Sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses, and it is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward. It saddens us to think that their willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings.”

University President Teresa Sullivan released a statement today regarding the CJS’s report, citing “irresponsible journalism,” and said the original Rolling Stone story hindered efforts to address issues of sexual violence on campuses.

“Rolling Stone’s story, ‘A Rape on Campus,’ did nothing to combat sexual violence, and it damaged serious efforts to address the issue,” Sullivan said. “Rolling Stone accused some University of Virginia students of heinous, criminal acts, and falsely depicted others as indifferent to the suffering of their classmate. The story portrayed University staff members as manipulative and callous toward victims of sexual assault. Such false depictions reinforce the reluctance sexual assault victims already feel about reporting their experience, lest they be doubted or ignored.”

Sullivan reinforced the University’s continued commitment to confronting sexual violence and implementing reforms to improve campus culture and prevent violence.

“Long before Rolling Stone published its article, the University of Virginia was working to confront sexual violence,” Sullivan said. “Our highest priority is to ensure the safety of our students so they can learn and achieve their personal potential in an environment of trust and security. We will continue to work tirelessly in pursuit of that goal.”

Coll and Coronel will speak at a press conference Monday at noon to discuss the report and answer questions. The event will be live broadcast at bit.ly/cjslive.

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