The story, which followed the case of a UVA student named Jackie, was retracted last night after a 12,700-word report was released by the Columbia Journalism School and published on Rolling Stone’s website. The CJR review uncovered a breakdown in very basic reporting principles, including pressing hard for outside confirmation of difficult stories and sending “no surprises” letters to every person being portrayed in an unflattering light. The report was accompanied by an apology from managing editor Will Dana, who penned the editor’s note we discussed in December. The writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, also released a statement, which read in part:
I allowed my concern for Jackie’s well-being, my fear of re-traumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts. These are mistakes I will not make again.
Reporting on rape has unique challenges, but the journalist still has the responsibility to get it right. I hope that my mistakes in reporting this story do not silence the voices of victims that need to be heard.
Retraction Watch readers who are wondering why we’re covering this case will find an answer in Jonathan Mahler’s New York Times article:
It is hardly unusual for journalists to rely on members of advocacy groups for help finding characters, but it is a practice that requires extra vigilance. “You’re in a zone there where you have to be careful,” said Nicholas Lemann, a professor at Columbia and the journalism school’s former dean.
Mr. Lemann distributes a document called “The Journalistic Method” in one of his classes. It is a play on the term “the scientific method,” but in some respects, investigating a story is not so different from investigating a scientific phenomenon. “It’s all about very rigorous hypothesis testing: What is my hypothesis and how would I disprove it?” he said. “That’s what the journalist didn’t do in this case.”
During the reporting and editing of “A Rape on Campus,” the journalist, editors, and fact checkers failed their sources and their readers in the same way we often see scientists go down. There was no intentional falsification or plagiarism. Instead, an investigator was so driven by the goal of proving a hypothesis that they took shortcuts and didn’t question their baseline assumptions.
Confirmation bias is alive and well in journalism, as much as it is in science, because it is a natural part of human cognition. We can never rely on one source, or one study, but instead must build a case, fighting to find any contradictory evidence available.
“A Rape on Campus” is essentially, according to the CJR report, a one-source story. Erdely failed to speak with students she ‘quoted’ in her story, so their words came only via Jackie, though the Rolling Stone story doesn’t make that clear. Those students came forward to the Washington Post to say that the details of the night were misrepresented in the Rolling Stone story, and that they had never been contacted by Erdely. The fraternity in Erdely’s story, Phi Kappa Psi, is suing Rolling Stone over the article.
During her investigation, Erdely uncovered other rape victims who had reported their cases to the school, leading to documents and outside sources that might have helped verify the victims’ claims. She and her editors decided to stick with Jackie, whose dramatic story would, as former executive editor of the New York Times Bill Keller pointed out, “scream louder to be heard above the crowd.”
Sheila Coronel, an author of the report and dean of academic affairs at Columbia Journalism School, warned about confirmation bias at a Monday press conference on the report:
If a story fits into a prevailing narrative, you should be even more skeptical about it.
Columbia also made clear that Rolling Stone, not Jackie, was responsible for this breakdown. Here’s Steve Coll, a report author and the dean of Columbia Journalism School, at the press conference:
We found that this failure was not the subject’s or source’s fault, as a matter of journalism. It was product of failed methodology, and we didn’t feel that her role in the story should be the subject of a report that was seeking accountability for a failure of journalism…it was the collective fault of the reporter, the editor, the editor’s supervisor, and the fact checking department.
There will be fallout from this, both for journalists and survivors – though Rolling Stone has stated that no one at the magazine will be fired. A high-profile case of rape accusations falling apart lends credence to the false idea that many alleged rape victims are lying. Social scientists at UMass Boston place the rate of false report between two and 10 percent.
Rape victims will almost certainly be less likely to talk to reporters, especially after Rolling Stone’s publisher Jann Wenner called Jackie “a really expert fabulist storyteller,” placing the blame not on his massive editorial operation but on a 21 year old college student who, according to her roommate at the time, had clearly undergone some kind of trauma.
There’s also concern this might make victims less likely to come forward to authorities — this on top of the tragically low rates of reporting. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that only 36% of rape victims report the crime to police.
But we hope the fallout for journalists goes in a more positive direction, because the kindest thing a reporter can do for someone sharing their story is insist on basic reporting. Alleged victims, like any human subject, must be handled with care, sensitivity, and discretion. But they still must be investigated from every angle before a new discovery is declared.
It’s not cruel to build a solid foundation for a heavy story to stand on. It’s the goddamned job.