Posts Tagged ‘Columbia Journalism School’

Do You Trust Rolling Stone?

“Do the two of you trust what you read in the magazine now,” Ravi Somaiya of The New York Times asked Columbia Journalism School Deans Steve Coll and Sheila Coronel at a Monday press conference about their Rolling Stone report.

“We’re empiricists,” Coronel replied. “Unless there is evidence to the contrary, we would judge each story on its merits.”

Less than 24 hours before the press conference at Columbia University in New York City, people devoured the 13,000-word report that called the magazine’s November 2014 story about an alleged gang rape a “journalistic failure that was avoidable.”

The report’s authors suggest several areas where stronger policy and clearer staff understanding may have prevented the original story from being published. Yet, the report says Rolling Stone’s senior editors “are unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems.”

Instead of blaming the editorial process, which is largely cited in the report that Rolling Stone commissioned, the magazine’s managing editor says the staff simply has to not make the same mistake again. The magazine’s fact-checking chief is quoted as saying the editorial process isn’t the problem. Instead, the process was bypassed because of the topic – rape.

Rolling Stone Publisher Jann Wenner told The New York Times in an interview that the story’s problems began with its source, who was a girl referred to as “Jackie.” Wenner clarified in the interview that he was not trying to blame the girl, “but obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.”

In other words, Rolling Stone’s leadership believes there is enough blame for these failures to go around, but there’s not enough left for themselves.

As Jack Shafer rightfully points out in Politico Magazine, no news organization is immune from “crimes against journalism.” He cites several well-known cases of pure fabrication and deception, including The Washington Post’s Janet Cooke and USA TODAY’s Jack Kelley.

Admittedly those cases rank higher on any scale of journalism malpractice, but there is another difference. In the cases of Cooke and Kelley, there was some acknowledgement – either through changes in staff or editorial policies – that the organizations learned a lesson.

There will be no changes in staff or editorial policy at Rolling Stone following the release of Columbia Journalism School’s report. Even the author of the now-retracted story will continue to write for the magazine, according to its publisher.

No news organization is immune from “crimes against journalism,” but the measure of an outlet recovering from an offense should be the response of its leadership.

Perhaps there is no need for any of Rolling Stone’s staff to lose their job, but surely there is at least one change that can be made within the magazine’s editorial process based on the report’s findings.

For example, Rolling Stone could implement new and stronger policies in the three areas that “might have changed the final outcome,” according to the report. Those areas are the use of pseudonyms, checking derogatory information and confronting subjects with details.

Another possible change would be a system to ensure the magazine’s fact-checking staff is not timid when confronting editorial leadership with possible problems.

Yet, there are no announced changes within the magazine. The lack of change signals that Rolling Stone’s leadership didn’t learn even one lesson from the 13,000-word report it asked Columbia Journalism School to produce.

Whether people trust Rolling Stone may not be the correct question to ask. Instead, the question may be whether people should trust someone who hasn’t learned any lessons from their mistakes.

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:

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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