Columbia J-School Issues Rolling Stone Report

A screenshot of the editor's note attached to a Rolling Stone story about a 2012 gang rape at the University of Virginia. (captured 12/5/2014)

A screenshot of the editor’s note attached to a Rolling Stone story about a 2012 gang rape at the University of Virginia. (captured 12/5/2014)

Systemic problems within Rolling Stone allowed for the release of a story that the Columbia Journalism School called a “journalistic failure that was avoidable” in a new report of the magazine’s editorial processes.

“The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking,” wrote Columbia Journalism School Deans Steve Coll and Sheila Coronel in the lengthy report, which was published Sunday night on the websites of Rolling Stone and the Columbia Journalism Review. Derek Kravitz, a researcher at Columbia, is also an author of the report.

Rolling Stone reported the events surrounding an alleged 2012 gang rape of a freshman woman named “Jackie” on the Charlottesville campus of the University of Virginia in a November 19, 2014, story. Subsequent reporting by journalists and investigation by local police questioned the accuracy of the story.

In addition to pointing to an overall failure of the magazine’s staff to prevent the story from being published, the report highlights several actions that were especially egregious:

  • The magazine did not seek comments from the person accused of orchestrating the rape.
  • The magazine relied on “Jackie” for most of the information for the article.
  • The magazine did not attempt to verify the information even when “Jackie” did not request restrictions.
  • The magazine did not provide a full account of what “Jackie” described to the university or the fraternity at the center of the story.
  • The magazine did not make clear what was known and what was unknown.

As a result of the report, Rolling Stone removed the original story from its website. The magazine now directs people to the report instead of the story. Sabrina Rubin Erdely, freelance journalist and the author of the story in question, also issued an apology on Sunday night.

“I hope that my mistakes in reporting this story do not silence the voices of victims that need to be heard,” Erdely wrote, according to The New York Times.

Journalists should take note of the report, because it shows that sloppy journalism causes harm. In this case, the failures of a reporter and Rolling Stone caused harm to “Jackie,” several men, a fraternity, so-called Greek life, the University of Virginia and all victims of sex crimes.

What’s more, the failures of Ms. Erdely and Rolling Stone likely harmed journalism as a whole. The situation may force ethical journalists to work harder to gain the trust of sources and readers.

As I wrote on this blog in December, it’s important for people to know that the blame for harm caused by the November article falls on the shoulders of Rolling Stone, which the magazine’s managing editor Will Dana also admitted on Twitter.

“Jackie” nor any other source forced Rolling Stone to publish an unverified article in a magazine that reaches about 1.5 million people. The magazine’s leadership is solely responsible for that decision.

Without question, one of most egregious errors committed by Rolling Stone’s leadership was not requiring Ms. Erdely to get a response from the men accused of rape.

In a note added last year to the story by Mr. Dana, he said the magazine respected the wish of “Jackie” not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack.

Ethical journalists attempt to be respectful to the requests of people who are victims of sex crimes, but those journalists are also responsible for verifying their work. It’s simply irresponsible for any news organization to not seek comments from people accused of such serious crimes.

Also, as exhibited by the excellent reporting by The Washington Post and detailed in the report, there are other sources that questioned the reliability of the information provided to Rolling Stone, such as activity and work logs.

Without a doubt, the Rolling Stone story on the alleged 2012 sexual assault at the University of Virginia will be considered as one of the great journalism failings in modern history – alongside the scandals of The New York Times’s Jayson Blair scandal and The Washington Post’s Janet Cooke.

Following the report, I assume the public will be hearing about several changes within Rolling Stone. Many of those changes are detailed within the report. No changes in staff will be made based on the report or the failure of the magazine.

Additionally, Rolling Stone should publish an accurate and thorough report about sexual assaults on U.S. college campuses. The topic, which is known to be a significant problem, was lost among the discussion of the magazine’s failures.

Until then, people looking for information or resources can check the website of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center here: http://bit.ly/1IhuXqZ

The Society’s ethics committee will continue to follow the events that occur in the wake of Columbia Journalism School’s report, and will update the blog as necessary.


Andrew M. Seaman is the Society’s ethics chair.

* An official statement from the Society will be released separately. When available, it will be posted here.

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