A team from Columbia University’s Journalism School has completed its review into Rolling Stone’s story about an alleged rape at the University of Virginia; their 12,000 word report says that the magazine as well as Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the reporter who wrote the piece, failed to follow “basic, even routine journalistic practice” in terms of fact-checking and due diligence to verify their subject’s story.
Rolling Stone first began walking back the piece in December, saying it had identified “discrepancies” in the story told to Rubin Erdely by Jackie, the UVA student who said she had been gang-raped by members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. (At the same time, I apologized for defending Erdely’s reporting; then, as now, I was wrong to do so, and wrong to castigate the story’s critics.)
The Columbia team was asked by Rolling Stone soon after to conduct an independent inquiry into what had gone wrong. Here, according the Columbia team, are the main flaws in the story:
- Erdely didn’t talk to Jackie’s friends who supposedly comforted her after she was assaulted.
From the report: “Journalistic practice – and basic fairness – require that if a reporter intends to publish derogatory information about anyone, he or she should seek that person’s side of the story.” Erdely relied almost solely on Jackie, not making an independent effort to locate the three students.
Erdely—who spoke to the Columbia team and answered questions about her reporting process— said she feared that Jackie would withdraw her cooperation if Erdely went around her and tried to contact the friends independently. (Jackie never asked Erdely directly to avoid talking to the friends she had quoted.) This basic due diligence would have changed the story: If Erdely had contacted Ryan Duffin, one of the friends in question, he would have given her information that would have made her seek out a different main character, whose story lacked these contradictions:
If Erdely had reached Ryan Duffin – his true name – he would have said that he had never told Jackie that he would not participate in Rolling Stone’s “shit show,” Duffin said in an interview for this report. The entire conversation with Ryan that Jackie described to Erdely “never happened,” he said. Jackie had never tried to contact him about cooperating with Rolling Stone. He hadn’t seen Jackie or communicated with her since the previous April, he said.
If Erdely had learned Ryan’s account that Jackie had fabricated their conversation, she would have changed course immediately, to research other UVA rape cases free of such contradictions, she said later.
- Erdely asked Phi Kappa Psi for comment, but didn’t give them enough information to allow them to rebut the allegations.
Erdely spoke to both Phi Kappa Psi’s local chapter president Stephen Sciopioneas well as the fraternity’s national executive director Shawn Collinsworth, but didn’t give either of them a full enough picture of the story she was writing. If she’d revealed the date of the alleged rape, they could have told her that there was no party that night. If she’d said the alleged ringleader of the attack worked at the aquatic center, they could have told her there was no such member at the fraternity. Again, from the report:
If Erdely had provided Scipione and Collinsworth the full details she possessed instead of asking simply for “comment,” the fraternity might have investigated the facts she presented. After Rolling Stone published, Phi Kappa Psi said it did just that. Scipione said in an interview that a review of the fraternity’s social media archives and bank records showed that the fraternity had held no date function or other party on the night Jackie said she was raped. A comparison of fraternity membership rolls with aquatic center employment records showed that it had no members who worked as lifeguards, Scipione added.
Erdely said Scipione had seemed “really vague,” so she focused on getting a reply from Collinsworth. “I felt that I gave him a full opportunity to respond,” she said. “I felt very strongly that he already knew what the allegations were because they’d been told by UVA.” As it turned out, however, the version of the attack provided to Phi Kappa Psi was quite different from and less detailed than the one Jackie had provided to Erdely.
- Erdely did not identify or speak to “Drew,” the ringleader of Jackie’s alleged attack.
The Columbia report describes a “six-week struggle” between Erdely and Jackie, where the reporter tried to persuade the girl to identify Drew by his full name and allow Erdely to locate him for comment. Erdely asked Jackie for permission to contact Drew, and the girl refused, saying she was frightened of him.
She suggested, though, that Erdely might be able to get his last name from Phi Kappa Psi’s membership rolls. Then, she stopped responding to Erdely altogether:
After this conversation, Jackie stopped responding to Erdely’s calls and messages. “There was a point in which she disappeared for about two weeks,” Erdely said, “and we became very concerned” about Jackie’s well-being. “Her behavior seemed consistent with a victim of trauma.”
Yet Jackie made no demand that Rolling Stone not try to identify the lifeguard independently. She even suggested a way to do so – by checking the fraternity’s roster. Nor did she condition her participation in the story on Erdely agreeing not to try to identify the lifeguard.
Erdely did try hard to find Drew. But two weeks before her deadline, she chose a pseudonym for him and ceased trying to find him. She notified Jackie, who began to work with her again.
Later, Jackie claimed in an interview with Washington Post that she requested that Erdely take her out of the story; the review says there’s no evidence of such a conversation in Erdely’s notes:
In December, Jackie told The Washington Post in an interview that after several interviews with Erdely, she had asked to be removed from the story, but that Erdely had refused. Jackie told the Post she later agreed to participate on condition that she be allowed to fact-check parts of her story. Erdely said in an interview for this report that she was completely surprised by Jackie’s statements to the Post and that Jackie never told her she wanted to withdraw from the story. There is no evidence of such an exchange between Jackie and Erdely in the materials Erdely submitted to Rolling Stone.
- Erdely’s editors didn’t push her hard enough to “close the gaps” in the piece.
From the report: “Sean Woods, Erdely’s primary editor, might have prevented the effective retraction of Jackie’s account by pressing his writer to close the gaps in her reporting.” It adds:
In hindsight, the most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was to accept that Erdely had not contacted the three friends who spoke with Jackie on the night she said she was raped. That was the reporting path, if taken, that would have almost certainly led the magazine’s editors to change plans.
It’s also pretty clear that Rolling Stone’s editors weren’t aware of the significant, non-standard deal that Erdely made with Jackie regarding “Drew”:
As to “Drew,” the lifeguard, Dana said he was not even aware that Rolling Stone did not know the man’s full name and had not confirmed his existence. Nor was he told that “we’d made any kind of agreement with Jackie to not try to track this person down.”
As noted, there was no such explicit compact between Erdely and Jackie, according to Erdely’s records. Jackie requested Erdely not to contact the lifeguard, but there was no agreement.
- The story didn’t make clear what information Erdely was missing, and what people she was unable to reach.
The biggest failure in “A Rape on Campus,” in many respects, is its lack of transparency: readers weren’t made aware that “Drew” hadn’t been located or even identified, that Jackie’s three friends hadn’t been able to comment, that virtually everything was from the girl’s point of view. The most “egregious failures of transparency” in the story, the report says, are the fault of both the reporter and her editors:
— Rolling Stone’s editors did not make clear to readers that Erdely and her editors did not know “Drew’s” true name, had not talked to him and had been unable to verify that he existed. That was fundamental to readers’ understanding. In one draft of the story, Erdely did include a disclosure. She wrote that Jackie “refuses to divulge [Drew’s] full name to RS,” because she is “gripped by fears she can barely articulate.” Woods cut that passage as he was editing. He “debated adding it back in” but “ultimately chose not to.”
— Woods allowed the “shit show” quote from “Randall” into the story without making it clear that Erdely had not gotten it from him but from Jackie. “I made that call,” Woods said. Not only did this mislead readers about the quote’s origins, it also compounded the false impression that Rolling Stone knew who “Randall” was and had sought his and the other friends’ side of the story.
In the end, the report adds, “The editors invested Rolling Stone’s reputation in a single source.” The editors seem to still place much of the responsibility for the story’s flaws on this source: story editor Sean Woods states, “We were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many requests in our reporting... We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.” Managing editor Will Dana states, “I don’t think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things.”
- The story’s fact-checker had concerns about the reporting, but wasn’t comfortable sharing them with her boss.
The fact-checker, who isn’t identified by name in the report, is said to have had some concerns about the reporting of the story, namely that the three friends hadn’t been interviewed and yet were quoted as if those quotes had been vetted and verified with someone besides Jackie. She marked these as potential issues in the draft, but Woods and Erdely “came to the conclusion that they were comfortable” with the story’s careful elisions. She did not raise her concerns with her boss, the head of the fact-checking department.
Additionally, the magazine’s legal counsel is also said to have looked at the final story before publication, although this is where Columbia’s team wasn’t able to get very far. It’s clear that Rolling Stone will likely be sued by University of Virginia and/or Phi Kappa Psi, and nobody would answer questions about what the magazine’s attorneys had thought about the story or how they greenlit it for publication:
It is not clear what questions the lawyer may have raised about the draft. Erdely and the editors involved declined to answer questions about the specifics of the legal review, citing instructions from the magazine’s outside counsel, Elizabeth McNamara, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine. McNamara said Rolling Stone would not answer questions about the legal review of “A Rape on Campus” in order to protect attorney-client privilege.
In the end, the Columbia review concludes that there was no catastrophic meltdown here, just one basic failure from which everything else proceeded: “There is no evidence in Erdely’s materials or from interviews with her subjects that she invented facts; the problem was that she relied on what Jackie told her without vetting its accuracy.”
The Columbia reviewers suggest that Rolling Stone’s editorial management review their policies on pseudonyms in stories, their requirements regarding checking “derogatory” information with the person it concerns, and providing enough detail when asking for comment.
The review ends with suggestions about how all of us can do better in reporting on campus rape stories. Ultimately, these stories are about powerful institutions and how they respond to sexual assault; the Columbia reviewers point out that journalists are “rarely in a position to prove guilt or innocent in a rape.” They add:
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.
Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana also released a statement on the report, which appears as a preface. He says the Columbia team received no payment for their work and that the magazine placed no conditions on what they could write. He closes with a mea culpa and an apology, stating that the magazine will implement the recommended changes (contradicting his statement within the story that “a lot of new ways of doing things” are unnecessary, and the review’s conclusion that “Rolling Stone’s senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems.”
The report was painful reading, to me personally and to all of us at Rolling Stone. It is also, in its own way, a fascinating document – a piece of journalism, as Coll describes it, about a failure of journalism. With its publication, we are officially retracting ‘A Rape on Campus.’ We are also committing ourselves to a series of recommendations about journalistic practices that are spelled out in the report. 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 UVA 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.
Sabrina Rubin Erdely hasn’t been heard from publicly since the story began to unravel. She too at last released a statement tonight, at the same time the Columbia report went live: