The Columbia School of Journalism held a press conference Monday addressing its report released Sunday night analyzing Rolling Stone’s failed reporting and editing procedures for Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s “A Rape on Campus” article. Two of the report’s authors, Steve Coll, dean of the School of Journalism at Columbia University, and Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, led the event.
To begin the conference, Coll outlined the main purposes of the report, saying it ultimately explained why Rolling Stone’s failures were avoidable, assessed the subjects beyond Jackie’s narrative, addressed Rolling Stone’s editorial policies and gave recommendations to both the magazine and journalists covering sexual assault in the future.
“This report is very much intended as a piece of journalism about a failure of journalism,” Coll said. “Although we did concentrate our efforts on the details of Rolling Stone’s reporting and editing, we also had the freedom to investigate any aspect of the story that we thought was germane and in the public interest.”
Coll and Coronel clarified that the blame for the article’s failure was never on Jackie and her account.
“The problems we outlined were problems of methodology,” Coronel said. “We don’t believe, in this case, Jackie was to blame.”
One of the methodological problems brought up in the report was Erdely’s decision not to release all of the details of Jackie’s alleged gang-rape to Phi Kappa Psi when asking for comments for her article. Erdely told Coll and Coronel she was under the impression the fraternity already knew of the allegations held against them.
“What Sabrina Erdely told us about that was she believed the fraternity had already been informed about the details she had possessed by the University of Virginia,” Coll said. “Now that turned out to be a misunderstanding, and it’s not a reason not to provide the full load of details at that moment.”
Both the authors denounced the magazine’s decision to place the initial blame on Jackie. Coll said it was more of an impulsive decision on Rolling Stone’s part and their retraction did not fully address nor criticize what truly went wrong in the reporting and editing process.
“Placing so much of the weight of the story on a single source, I wouldn't think of it as a matter of ethics as a matter of practice,” Coll said. “It’s just bad practice.”
The authors further emphasized how Erdely should have been more cautious in choosing a single story to define a wider narrative. Coll said the main question was whether she was looking for a single case to demonstrate what she already knew, or if she was investigating the underlying subject itself.
“The general rule is that if a story fits into a prevailing narrative, you should be even more skeptical about it,” Coronel said.
When asked if retracting the story allowed the University to be less accountable in addressing issues regarding sexual assault, Coll said it was Rolling Stone’s decision whether or not to re-report on sexual assault cases at the University. He said covering rape narratives is difficult to navigate in journalism because reporters cannot adjudicate guilt or innocence on behalf of an institution.
“Usually you’re not in a position to, as a journalist in an unadjudicated case, make some definite finding about guilt or innocence in a sexual assault matter,” Coll said. “But what you can report on [is] institutional response, and that’s a place to bring people into the public square.”
Although too early to tell accurately, Coronel said, the long-term effects of the article may be mixed. Survivors of sexual assault may feel less inclined to share their story publicly out of fear of being scrutinized, but the article sparked an important dialogue on college campuses.
“As far as U.Va. is concerned, this was a moment for a robust and healthy conversation involving various constituencies in the universities about a problem that has been there for a long time,” Coronel said.