When Rolling Stone magazine realized they may have some problems in a story, and then the underlying reporting process of the story, they called The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to investigate. They asked Columbia’s Dean for an outside investigation into how the magazine got their Nov. 19, 2014 story “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” so wrong. Rolling Stone agreed to cooperate fully, and that the Columbia Journalism Review would investigate possible lapses in reporting, editing and fact-checking for the story, for as long as they needed to write whatever they found.
Today, the Columbia Journalism Review posted their report. And yeah, did they find some lapses. They found more than lapses. They found procedural and methodological practices that effectively halted the gathering of additional information that could have kept this entire thing from happening.
The Rolling Stone article goes up against UVA’s administration for stonewalling them, UVA goes against Rolling Stone for portraying them in false light. But, the CJR report doesn’t place the blame on stonewalling admins or potential exaggerations. CJR skewers the process of reporting and editing itself, and that’s what made this story fall apart.
For the uninitiated, here’s the nickel tour of the backstory. A writer did a story on a student, called Jackie in the story, who said she had been sexually assaulted at an on-campus University of Virginia fraternity party, and felt inadequate systems were in place to help her afterwards. Jackie was given two choices: She could file a public criminal police report or she could file a complaint with the college’s judicial sexual misconduct board. She chose to proceed with the college’s sexual misconduct board.
(Why do colleges have these options? Well, that’s because of Title IX, the governing document that women and men should have equal opportunities and resources to succeed in school. Under Title IX, student rape survivors are allowed to protect their identity by pursuing a solution within the university. This was, ideally, supposed to protect survivors from the potential fallout of having their names known publicly, and creating a hostile environment for learning. Student judicial affairs investigations, just like a student’s grades or other private information, are confidential. School officials can’t share them. In the typical student judicial affairs cases (underage drinking in a dorm, per se, or allegations of cheating), these really aren’t things where student affairs needs a lot of outside police intervention.
Some survivors do want to face their attacker, but not necessarily put themselves through the rigor and scrutiny of actually filing public charges and going to court for a public trial, and as a college student in an on-campus incident, the survivor’s choice is the final say on how the case will be handled. A 19-year-old may not want to delay her (or his, or their) college career, or forego anonymity, by going to the police. But if a student pursues the college judicial affairs track, everything that happens there falls under FERPA protection (Family Education Right to Privacy). This is why your parents can’t call your professors for your grades. This is why your underage drinking in a dorm might just be a violation in your sealed college records and not on your public criminal record.)
Then, the Rolling Stone reporter actually tracked through some of these allegedly inadequate investigations and resources for survivors on the UVA campus, explaining that since Jackie chose the more-secretive college investigation system, many details of the investigation into other students’ conduct, the fraternity and other university departments were secret too. The same system to protect Jackie protects every other student involved. Of course, this was an issue for the Rolling Stone reporter trying to get information on the alleged attacker or attackers, or to even get any concrete information about the university’s investigation into or reactions to the case at all.
But the reporter and the editor believed their source, and they trusted her story. They published it. And then some things started to unravel.
Other writers and editors were already criticizing the validity of the story, some before it even came out.
According to the Columbia Journalism Review article (on their investigation into the reporting, fact-checking and editing of the story), after the Rolling Stone article was published, the writer called Jackie, and Jackie thanked her, many times. She said Jackie seemed “adrenaline-charged … feeling really good.” So the writer decided to ask one of the nagging unanswered questions. Now that the subject felt comfortable with the published piece, she asked about the lifeguard, a co-worker at the aquatic center where Jackie worked, who had been the one to lure her to the party in the first place and oversaw her assault. The reporter said the name would never be published, but just in case, for a reporter’s due diligence, she asked for his name. Jackie said a name, but then stumbled. She didn’t know how to spell it. She guessed at a few possible spellings.
This was a red flag for the reporter. How could this woman not know her attacker’s name? She said they met working together at the college pool, and then he asked her to go with him to dinner and a function at the fraternity house. She said she was now terrified of him. How can someone be so flippant about remembering this person’s name? A person who had played a tremendous role in her ordeal?
They spoke again, on Dec. 4, the actual date on the issue of the magazine the story is printed in, and by the end of the call, the reporter had “serious doubts.” She called her editor, and later that day the magazine published an editor’s note retracting that part of the story.
OK, you’re caught up now. Rolling Stone screwed up. But how? These magazines have large staffs, employ fact-checking departments and hire top writers and editors in their fields. How did they screw up something this important this badly?
Well, the Columbia Journalism Review found out how, and none of it is exactly rocket-science-level stuff. It’s simple things like checking derogatory statements, going to subjects prepared with details and then using them, and finding information to corroborate Jackie’s statements. Maybe not her entire story needed complete corroboration, but some of the threads could have been followed more thoroughly.
This is a fascinating story to me because I work at a college and in journalism. I work with FERPA and understand student judiciary process. I understand a reporter’s responsibility to follow leads and threads and corroborate and independently investigate and verify a subject’s account. This presents challenges for the college bound by the federal protections FERPA provides, and challenges for the reporter—but not impossibilities. The CJR article points out specific areas and actions the reporter could have taken completely outside of FERPA-protected data to corroborate information. If a piece of information is tough to get, it’ll probably be worth the work. It will help either by making your story more credible, or by exposing a hole in your story. If you can’t find more information to fill that hole, or if that hole leads to more holes, you realize that you’re being led into a journalistic neitherworld, where things you write can’t be proven, and you can leave that person out of the story, or make them a small paragraph in the middle, while you reshape your story to be about the information you can corroborate and stand by.
I encourage you to read the report. It is, as CJR says, a piece of journalism to examine a failure of journalism. It’s great advice and education on how to be sure you’re covering a subject comprehensively, and it’s a great analysis on how a system that has produced a prolific history of quality investigative journalism failed this time.
The Columbia Journalism Review article is online here. The original Rolling Stone article has since been retracted online, but is available in the print copy of the Dec. 4, 2014 issue No. 1223. (Sidenote: the issue also has an article about Dave Grohl, reviews of One Direction’s album “Four” and one of the “Hunger Games” films, plus a $350 set of headphones in a Holiday Gift Guide that I think would look really good on me.)