Fail­ure in Rolling Stone rape story called ‘sys­temic’

Don’t blame the source, a stu­dent, an in­ves­ti­ga­tor says. It was bad jour­nal­ism.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Matt Pearce matt.pearce@la­times.com

The Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia stu­dent at the cen­ter of a dis­cred­ited Rolling Stone rape ar­ti­cle was not to blame when a “sys­temic” fail­ure of jour­nal­ism led the mag­a­zine to pub­lish her un­ver­i­fied ac­count of the al­leged attack, those who in­ves­ti­gated the story said Mon­day.

“This fail­ure was not the sub­ject or source’s fault as a mat­ter of jour­nal­ism,” said Steve Coll, dean of Columbia Uni­ver­sity Grad­u­ate School of Jour­nal­ism, who co-wrote the re­port on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. “It was a prod­uct of failed method­ol­ogy. … We dis­agree with any sug­ges­tion that this was Jackie’s fault,” he said, re­fer­ring to the stu­dent, who was iden­ti­fied in the ar­ti­cle only by her first name.

Rolling Stone on Sun­day re­tracted and apol­o­gized for the Novem­ber cover story as soon as the Columbia Uni­ver­sity re­port was re­leased. The Columbia team re­it­er­ated Mon­day that it found deep flaws in the re­port­ing and edit­ing of the woman’s nar­ra­tive of her al­legedly be­ing gang-raped at a Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia fra­ter­nity.

The public dis­sec­tion of the re­port came as crit­i­cism against Rolling Stone grew, with the ac­cused fra­ter­nity say­ing Mon­day that it would pur­sue “all avail­able legal ac­tion.”

The re­port “demon­strates the reck­less na­ture in which Rolling Stone re­searched and failed to ver­ify facts in its ar­ti­cle,” said Stephen Sci­p­i­one, Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia chap­ter pres­i­dent of Phi Kappa Psi fra­ter­nity. “This type of re­port­ing serves as a sad ex­am­ple of a se­ri­ous decline of jour­nal­is­tic stan­dards.”

Ques­tions about the au­then­tic­ity of the story emerged al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter pub­li­ca­tion, although the uni­ver­sity took the ac­cu­sa­tion se­ri­ously and brought in po­lice. In the end, nei­ther po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tors nor the Columbia Uni­ver­sity re­port found ev­i­dence that a rape had oc­curred.

“The ab­ject fail­ure of ac­count­abil­ity in jour­nal­ism that led to Rolling Stone’s ‘A Rape on Cam­pus’ ar­ti­cle has done un­told dam­age to the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia and our com­mon­wealth as a whole,” Vir­ginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said in a state­ment Mon­day. “This false ac­count has been an un­nec­es­sary and danger­ous dis­trac­tion from real ef­forts to com­bat sex­ual vi­o­lence on our col­lege cam­puses.”

Af­ter re­tract­ing the story, the mag­a­zine re­moved it from its web­site and re­placed it with the 12,644word Columbia re­port.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which also found se­ri­ous lapses in ba­sic jour­nal­is­tic pro­ce­dure, had been re­quested by Rolling Stone in De­cem­ber as doubts about the story grew.

Coll said the re­port’s au­thors hoped to con­struct a “case study” that would be use­ful for jour­nal­ists, stu­dents and the public “to see ex­actly how the ed­i­to­rial process broke down.”

He said that break­down was not the re­sult of the ac­count Jackie gave, but of the mag­a­zine’s “failed method­ol­ogy” in not con­firm­ing its ba­sic ac­cu­racy.

Sheila Coronel, dean of aca­demic af­fairs at Columbia Uni­ver­sity Grad­u­ate School of Jour­nal­ism and coau­thor of the re­port, said in­ves­ti­ga­tors de­cided not to iden­tify the stu­dent known as Jackie even though her al­le­ga­tions of a gang-rape could not be proved.

An at­tor­ney for Jackie de­clined to com­ment Mon­day. Jackie did not co­op­er­ate with ei­ther the po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion or the Columbia re­port.

Although Rolling Stone’s sys­temic break­downs in verification and at­tri­bu­tion marked one of the ugli­est blem­ishes in the mag­a­zine’s his­tory, the pub­lisher had no plans to fire the re­porter or any of the ed­i­tors in­volved in the story, a spokes­woman said.

Rolling Stone’s pub­lisher, Jann S. Wen­ner, and its man­ag­ing edi­tor, Will Dana, de­clined re­quests for in­ter­views.

In an in­ter­view with the New York Times on Sun­day, Wen­ner called Jackie “a re­ally ex­pert fab­u­list sto­ry­teller,” adding that he was not try­ing to blame the woman, “but ob­vi­ously there is some­thing here that is un­truth­ful, and some­thing sits at her doorstep.”

The Columbia re­port found no in­stances of fab­ri­ca­tion or ly­ing on the part of Rolling Stone.

Rather than blame a sin­gle per­son — such as the re­porter, Sab­rina Ru­bin Erdely — the Columbia re­port said the story’s “fail­ure en­com­passed re­port­ing, edit­ing, ed­i­to­rial su­per­vi­sion and fact-check­ing.”

“The mag­a­zine set aside or ra­tio­nal­ized as un­nec­es­sary es­sen­tial prac­tices of re­port­ing that, if pur­sued, would likely have led the mag­a­zine’s ed­i­tors to re­con­sider pub­lish­ing Jackie’s nar­ra­tive so promi­nently, if at all.”

The re­port was writ­ten by Coll, Coronel and Derek Kravitz, a post­grad­u­ate re­search scholar at the jour­nal­ism school.

Through a spokes­woman, Erdely de­clined an in­ter­view re­quest Sun­day, but she apol­o­gized in a state­ment af­ter the re­port was pub­lished, call­ing the last few months “among the most painful of my life.”

She apol­o­gized “to Rolling Stone’s read­ers, to my Rolling Stone ed­i­tors and col­leagues, to the UVA com­mu­nity, and to any vic­tims of sex­ual as­sault who may feel fear­ful as a re­sult of my ar­ti­cle.”

Jay Paul Getty Images

THE PHI KAPPA PSI fra­ter­nity at the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia said Mon­day that it would pur­sue “all avail­able legal ac­tion” against Rolling Stone mag­a­zine.

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