Yesterday, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism released its report on the journalistic catastrophe that was Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” an article detailing an alleged — and subsequently discredited — account of a sexual assault at the University chapter of Phi Kappa Psi.
The report is scathing. Sheila Coronel, Steve Coll and Derek Kravitz — its writers — conclude that Rolling Stone’s failure “encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking” — in other words, everything. For their part, Coronel, Coll and Kravitz appear to have thoroughly addressed the major issues with the magazine’s reporting on the allegation that is most central to the narrative presented — an allegation from Jackie, a University student. But as thoroughly as these professionals investigated the journalistic failures of Sabrina Rubin Erdely (the article’s author), Sean Woods (its editor) and Will Dana (Rolling Stone’s managing editor), they confined their investigation just to Jackie’s story. This, we feel, was a mistake.
For University students, Rolling Stone did not just get one story wrong. It presented a skewed perspective of our student body; it vilified administrators without adequately explaining the constraints of federal law regarding these issues; it reduced the significance of organizations like One Less and One in Four, as well as the work of many students; it selected egregious elements of University culture — such as the “Rugby Road” song and the phrase “UVrApe” — and treated them as ubiquitous when they are not.
The Columbia report does not address these issues. Toward the end of the report, in their analysis of Erdely’s take on Jackie, Coronel, Coll and Kravitz briefly delve into a discussion of confirmation bias, which they describe as “the tendency of people to be trapped by pre-existing assumptions and to select facts that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones.” This, they say, was a factor in Erdely’s reporting, particularly as it pertained to her portrayal of the University administration, who she felt was stonewalling her. In reality, her interactions with them were complicated by many factors, including existing laws regarding universities’ ability to disclose information about sexual assaults.
Confirmation bias probably did play a large role in Erdely, Woods and Dana’s editorial decisions regarding “A Rape on Campus.” But this role was not confined to their willingness to take Jackie’s story at face value. The desire to portray rape at its most gruesome, and U.Va. at its most privileged, spilled over into Erdely’s descriptions of other elements of U.Va., elements not necessarily connected to Jackie’s story.
For instance, in Erdely’s narrative, she interviewed several University students without detailing their particular affiliations. Including just one quote from fourth-year student Brian Head — “The most impressive person at UVA is the person who gets straight A’s and goes to all the parties” — Erdely did not mention Head’s position at the time as president of One in Four, an all-male sexual assault prevention group that was founded at U.Va., despite the fact that this affiliation was the very reason she interviewed him in the first place. Erdely went on to mention One in Four later in the article and described it as a national organization, but conveniently left out that its founding took place at U.Va. Erdely referred to Emily Renda, a central character in the article, as a “recent grad,” but did not also describe her as a University employee, which she is and was at the time of the article’s publication.
For a report that discusses at length the issue of attributing information to sources throughout articles, the lack of mention of the importance of detailing the respective roles of sources is disappointing. But this is not the only non-Jackie-related area of concern. The Columbia report also rightfully details the difficulties of sourcing throughout a narrative-style article. The authors write, “There is a tension in magazine and narrative editing between crafting a readable story — a story that flows — and providing clear attribution of quotations and facts.” This is a central issue in the presentation of Jackie’s story. It is also a central issue in the presentation of U.Va., whose student body was largely homogenized. This narrative style of journalism, in fact, requires broader scrutiny given the results of Rolling Stone’s article.
Coronel, Coll and Kravitz rightfully point to the issues with fact-checking and editorial decisions in this case as beyond the confines of this particular writing style. But we should also more generally question this particular writing style as a reliable way to present news. For example, within the text of this narrative-style article, Erdely frequently inserted her perspective and opinion: when discussing U.Va.’s sexual misconduct policy, she called the adjudication of sexual assault by universities an “absurdity” and wrote that, though Title IX requires such adjudication, “no university on Earth is equipped to do [it].” This is not a balanced presentation of facts; this is an opinion being framed as objective reporting.
It is not up to the authors of this report to account for every wrong Rolling Stone committed, and the job of these researchers was made harder still by the fact that they had to gather their information from Rolling Stone first (though the magazine did provide a 405 page record of everything pertaining to the article). But as we reflect on Erdely’s article, we should not confine our analysis of it just to Jackie’s story and the editorial failures surrounding its presentation. It is a dramatic oversimplification to reduce this article — which shook our University to its core — just to that one narrative.
Where the Columbia report did not investigate, we hope we have filled in gaps as to Erdely’s presentation of our school. Coronel, Coll and Kravitz end their analysis as follows: “The responsibilities that universities have in preventing campus sexual assault — and the standards of performance they should be held to — are important matters of public interest. Rolling Stone was right to take them on. The pattern of its failure draws a map of how to do better.” This is entirely true, and we hope future endeavors do, in fact, do better — not just at fact-checking, but at presenting information in its entirety.