Columbia’s Review of Rolling Stone Article Promotes Questioning Survivors Beyond Comfort

Editorial Board

Content Warning: This editorial contains discussion of sexual assault.

Six months after the initial publication of Rolling Stone’s exposé “A Rape on Campus,” the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University released a 25-page review detailing the missteps Rolling Stone made in its account of an alleged sexual assault at the University of Virginia. Writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely, her editors and the alleged victim, known as Jackie, all came under fire when evidence surfaced that Jackie’s account was factually inconsistent. Columbia’s review described the story as a “journalistic failure” after The Washington Post published evidence that called the validity of Jackie’s story into question. According to the Post, Jackie’s friends had a much different account of the night on which she was allegedly assaulted and identified a different assailant than the one Jackie had described. Erdely and her editors failed to corroborate sources and published what they thought would be a hard-hitting, revealing account of college rape. Instead, the story blew up as an example of sloppy reporting and improper journalistic techniques.

Issues of journalistic integrity aren’t new; the Review’s Editorial Board recently wrote about NBC news anchor Brian Williams’ suspension after it was revealed that he lied about his wartime reporting in Iraq (“Williams Controversy Highlights Perils of Fame in Objective Journalism,” The Oberlin Review, Feb. 20, 2015). Rolling Stone’s mistake, however, was amplified by the fact that the victim, Jackie, accused a fraternity on UVA’s campus, Phi Kappa Psi, of gang rape, raising the stakes for the story. False rape accusations, though rare — according to a psychology study mentioned in the Columbia review, 2–8 percent of reported rapes are false — are often heralded as evidence that rape culture is exaggerated. In her haste to publish a piece that would change the dialogue about rape on college campuses, Erdely failed to follow basic journalistic steps, like corroborating her main source’s account with third parties and fact-checking all details, to ensure the piece was accurate.

More significantly, her editor failed to do his primary job: provide guidance. The Columbia review claims that Erdely could have avoided these pitfalls if she had only pushed Jackie harder to divulge more details about the alleged attack. “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. … Investigative reporters working on difficult, emotive or contentious stories often have blind spots. It is up to their editors to insist on more phone calls, more travel, more time, until the reporting is complete. Woods did not do enough.”

In actuality, the appropriate editorial decision would have been to go with a different story altogether. Erdely was right in believing Jackie. To do otherwise would have been to play into rape culture, which she was trying to challenge with her article. Moreover, she was right not to push Jackie to recount her story past a point of comfort. Columbia’s review acknowledged that social scientists, psychologists and trauma specialists have stressed the demand for journalists to be sensitive to survivors’ needs in order to avoid re-traumatizing them, yet later the review criticized Erdely for not pushing Jackie harder.

However, Erdely and Woods should have known that the story would be viewed under a microscope because so many readers would be looking for a reason to invalidate Jackie’s experience. There were too many holes in Jackie’s story and too many facts that Erdely left uncorroborated, leaving it open to the critique it later received. Woods should have encouraged Erdely to find a survivor who was more willing to divulge sensitive details, while still validating her experience. In hindsight, Erdely herself acknowledged in the report that Jackie’s story was perhaps not the right story to publish at the time. “If this story was going to be about Jackie, I can’t think of many things that we would have been able to do differently. … Maybe the discussion should not have been so much about how to accommodate her but should have been about whether she would be in this story at all.”

According to Columbia’s review, Erdely had discovered other stories about rape on UVA’s campus while working on Jackie’s story. Unlike Jackie’s story, these accounts had been adjudicated and would have told a narrative that was similar, though perhaps less likely to make headlines than Jackie’s, according to the Columbia review. Ultimately, this was Woods’ failure as much as Erdely’s.

When Erdely first realized there might have been a problem with her exposé, Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana hastily composed an online editor’s note, writing, “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.” The Columbia review accurately noted that this decision made a bad situation even worse by blaming Jackie rather than acknowledging that their own “language deflected blame from the magazine to its subject and attracted yet more criticism.” However, the fact remains that the Columbia review fell into a similar trap of doubting the victim, rather than questioning the narrative’s suitability for publication.

Though the review was far from perfect, Rolling Stone’s impulse for self reflection is a good one. When Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times, gave a convocation at Oberlin last Tuesday, March 31, he spoke about the self-critical and reflective nature of journalists. This is a vital characteristic of the press. The stakes are necessarily high in journalism, as a story can potentially have a serious impact on both its subjects and readers.

At this point, the damage of “A Rape on Campus” has been done, both (rightfully) to the reputation of Rolling Stone and (unfortunately) to the credibility of rape and assault survivors. Now Rolling Stone, and other journalists dealing with sensitive topics, must put self-reflection into practice and hold themselves to a higher standard.