4/5/15, "Rolling Stone's investigation: “A failure that was avoidable”," Columbia Journalism Review, article1. cjr.org, By Sheila Coronel, Steve Coll, and Derek Kravitz, 12,644 words
"Rolling Stone published “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and
Struggle for Justice at UVA” on Nov. 19, 2014. It caused a great
story ultimately attracted more than 2.7 million views, more than any
other feature not about a celebrity that the magazine had ever
Failure and its consequences...
Rolling Stone’s repudiation of the main narrative in “A Rape
on Campus” is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The
failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and
fact-checking. The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary
essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led
the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so
prominently, if at all....
In late March, after a
four-month investigation, the Charlottesville, Va., police department
said that it had “exhausted all investigative leads” and had concluded,
“There is no substantive basis to support the account alleged in the Rolling Stone article.” [Footnote 2]...
There has been other collateral damage. “It’s completely tarnished
our reputation,” said Stephen Scipione, the chapter president of Phi
Kappa Psi, the fraternity Jackie named as the site of her alleged
assault. “It’s completely destroyed a semester of our lives,
specifically mine. It’s put us in the worst position possible in our
community here, in front of our peers and in the classroom.”
The university has also suffered. Rolling Stone’s
account linked UVA’s fraternity culture to a horrendous crime and
portrayed the administration as neglectful. Some UVA administrators
whose actions in and around Jackie’s case were described in the story
were depicted unflatteringly and, they say, falsely. Allen W. Groves,
the University dean of students, and Nicole Eramo, an assistant dean of
students, separately wrote to the authors of this report that the
story’s account of their actions was inaccurate. [Footnote 3]...
Yet the (Rolling Stone) editors and Erdely have concluded that their main fault was to
be too accommodating of Jackie because she described herself as the
survivor of a terrible sexual assault. Social scientists, psychologists
and trauma specialists who support rape survivors have impressed upon
journalists the need to respect the autonomy of victims, to avoid
re-traumatizing them and to understand that rape survivors are as
reliable in their testimony as other crime victims. These insights
clearly influenced Erdely, Woods and Dana. “Ultimately, we were too
deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in
our reporting,” Woods said. “We should have been much tougher, and in
not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”...
Yet the explanation that Rolling Stone failed because it
deferred to a victim cannot adequately account for what went wrong.
Erdely’s reporting records and interviews with participants make clear
that the magazine did not pursue important reporting paths even when
Jackie had made no request that they refrain. The editors made judgments
about attribution, fact-checking and verification that greatly
increased their risks of error but had little or nothing to do with
protecting Jackie’s position....
"The mystery of Drew"...
In December, Jackie told The Washington Post in an interview
that after several interviews with Erdely, she had asked to be removed
from the story, but that Erdely had refused. Jackie told the Post she
later agreed to participate on condition that she be allowed to
fact-check parts of her story. Erdely said in an interview for this
report that she was completely surprised by Jackie’s statements to the
Post and that Jackie never told her she wanted to withdraw from the
story. There is no evidence of such an exchange between Jackie and
Erdely in the materials Erdely submitted to Rolling Stone.
was, in fact, an aquatic center lifeguard who had worked at the pool at
the same time as Jackie and had the first name she had used freely with
Erdely. He was not a member of Phi Kappa Psi, however. The police
interviewed him and examined his personal records. They found no
evidence to link him to Jackie’s assault.
If Rolling Stone
had located him and heard his response to Jackie’s allegations,
including the verifiable fact that he did not belong to Phi Kappa Psi,
this might have led Erdely to reconsider her focus on that case. In any
event, Rolling Stone stopped looking for him....
'What are they hiding?'
“A Rape on Campus” had ambitions beyond recounting one woman’s assault.
It was intended as an investigation of how colleges deal with sexual
violence. The assignment was timely. The systems colleges have put in
place to deal with sexual misconduct have come under intense scrutiny.
These systems are works in progress, entangled in changing and sometimes
contradictory federal rules that seek at once to keep students safe,
hold perpetrators to account and protect every student’s privacy....
The Obama administration took up the cause. It pressured colleges to
adopt more rigorous systems, and it required a lower threshold of guilt
to convict a student before school tribunals. The new pressure caused
confusion, however, and, in some cases, charges of injustice. Last
October, a group of Harvard Law School professors wrote that
its university’s revised sexual misconduct policy was “jettisoning
balance and fairness in the rush to appease certain federal
Erdely’s choice of the University of Virginia as a case study was
well timed. The week she visited campus, an 18-year-old UVA sophomore went missing
and was later found to have been abducted and killed. The university
had by then endured a number of highly visible sexual assault cases. The
Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights had placed the school,
along with 54 others, under a broad compliance review.
“The overarching point of the article,” Erdely wrote in response to questions from The Washington Post
last December, was not Jackie, but “the culture that greeted her and so
many other UVA women I interviewed, who came forward with allegations,
only to be met with indifference.”...
'A Chilling Effect'...
Over the years, the Department of Education has issued guidelines
that stress victim confidentiality and autonomy. This means survivors
decide whether to report and what assistance they would like. “If she
did not identify any individual or Greek organization by name, the
university was very, very limited in what it can do,” said S. Daniel
Carter, a campus safety advocate and director of the nonprofit 32
National Campus Safety Initiative....
As Rolling Stone reported, at their May 2013 meeting, Eramo
presented Jackie her options: reporting the assault to the police or to
the university’s Sexual Misconduct Board. The dean also offered
counseling and other services. She checked with Jackie in succeeding
weeks to see whether she wanted to take action. She introduced Jackie to
One Less, a student group made up of sexual assault survivors and their advocates.
university did not issue a warning at this point because Jackie did not
file a formal complaint and her account did not include the names of
assailants or a specific fraternity, according to the UVA sources. It
also made no mention of hazing.
Between that time and April 2014, the university received no further
information about Jackie’s case, according to the police and UVA
On April 21, 2014, Jackie again met with Eramo, according
to the police. She told the dean that she was now coming under pressure
for her visible activism on campus with assault prevention groups such
as Take Back the Night, according to the UVA sources. Three weeks
earlier, she said, she had been hit in the face by a bottle thrown by
hecklers outside a Charlottesville bar. She also added a new piece of
information to her earlier account of the gang rape she had endured. She
named Phi Kappa Psi as the fraternity where the assault had taken
place, the police said later. Moreover, she mentioned to Eramo two other
students who she said had been raped at that fraternity. But she did
not reveal the names of these women or any details about their assaults....
The day after her meeting with the dean, Jackie met with Charlottesville
and UVA police in a meeting arranged by Eramo. Jackie reported both the
bottle-throwing incident and her assault at the Phi Kappa Psi house.
The police later said that she declined to provide details about the
gang rape because “[s]he feared retaliation from the fraternity if she
followed through with a criminal investigation.” The police also said
they found significant discrepancies in Jackie’s account of the day she
said she was struck by the bottle....
As it turned out, however, all of the information that the reporter,
Renda and UVA possessed about the two other reported victims, in
addition to Jackie, came only from Jackie. One of the women filed an
anonymous report through the UVA online system - Jackie told Erdely she
was there when the student pressed the “send” button - but neither of
the women has been heard from since.
‘I’m afraid it may look like we’re trying to hide something’
In early September, Erdely asked to interview Eramo. The request created a dilemma for UVA. Universities must comply with a scaffold of federal laws
that limit what they can make public about their students. The most
important of these is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA,
which protects student privacy and can make it difficult for university
staff members to release records or answer questions about any
The communications office endorsed the interview, but Vice President for
Student Life Patricia Lampkin vetoed the idea. “This is not reflective
of Nicole,” she wrote in an email, “but of the issue and how reporters
turn the issue.” Asked to clarify that statement for this review,
Lampkin said she felt that given FERPA restrictions, there was nothing
Eramo could say in an interview that would give Erdely “a full and
balanced view of the situation.”...
On Oct. 2, Erdely interviewed UVA President Teresa Sullivan. The
reporter asked probing questions that revealed the gap between the
number of assault cases that the university reported publicly and the
cases that had been brought to the university’s attention internally.
Erdely described the light sanctions imposed on students found guilty of
sexual misconduct. She asked about allegations of gang rapes at Phi
Kappa Psi. Sullivan said that a fraternity was under investigation but
declined to comment further about specific cases.
Following the recent announcement by the Charlottesville police that they could find no basis for Rolling Stone’s
account of Jackie’s assault, Sullivan issued a statement. “The
investigation confirms what federal privacy law prohibited the
university from sharing last fall: That the university provided support
and care to a student in need, including assistance in reporting
potential criminal conduct to law enforcement,” she said.
concluded that UVA had not done enough. “Having presumably judged there
to be no threat,” she wrote in her published story, UVA “took no action
to warn the campus that an allegation of gang rape had been made against
an active fraternity.” Overall, she wrote, “rapes are kept quiet” at
UVA in part because of “an administration that critics say is less
concerned with protecting students than it is with protecting its own
reputation from scandal.”
During the six months she worked on the
story, Erdely concentrated her reporting on the perspectives of victims
of sexual violence at the University of Virginia and other campuses. She
was moved by their experiences and their diverse frustrations....
the view of some of Erdely’s sources, the portrait she created was
unfair and mistaken. “The university’s response is not, ‘We don’t
care,’” said Pinkleton, Jackie’s confidante and a member of One Less.
“When I reported my own assault, they immediately started giving me
For her part, Eramo rejects the article’s suggestion
that UVA places its own reputation above protecting students. In an
email provided by her lawyers, the dean wrote that the article falsely
attributes to her statements she never made (to Jackie or otherwise) and
that it “trivializes the complexities of providing trauma-informed
support to survivors and the real difficulties inherent in balancing
respect for the wishes of survivors while also providing for the safety
of our communities.”...
The Editing: ‘I Wish Somebody Had Pushed Me Harder’...
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. He started his career in music journalism
but had been editing complex reported features at Rolling Stone
for years. 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.
publisher Jann Wenner said he typically reads about half of the stories
in each issue before publication. He read a draft of Erdely’s narrative
and found Jackie’s case “extremely strong, powerful, provocative. … I
thought we had something really good there.” But Wenner leaves the
detailed editorial supervision to managing editor Will Dana, who has
been at the magazine for almost two decades. Dana might have looked more
deeply into the story drafts he read, spotted the reporting gaps and
insisted that they be fixed. He did not. “It’s on me,” Dana said. “I’m
In hindsight, the most consequential decision Rolling Stone
made was to accept that Erdely had not contacted the three friends who
spoke with Jackie on the night she said she was raped. That was the
reporting path, if taken, that would have almost certainly led the
magazine’s editors to change plans....
'I had a faith'...
The editors invested Rolling Stone’s reputation in a single
source. “Sabrina’s a writer I’ve worked with for so long, have so much
faith in, that I really trusted her judgment in finding Jackie
credible,” Woods said. “I asked her a lot about that, and she always
said she found her completely credible.”
Woods and Erdely knew
Jackie had spoken about her assault with other activists on campus, with
at least one suitemate and to UVA. They could not imagine that Jackie
would invent such a story. Woods said he and Erdely “both came to the
decision that this person was telling the truth.” They saw her as a
“whistle blower” who was fighting indifference and inertia at the
The problem of confirmation bias - the tendency of
people to be trapped by pre-existing assumptions and to select facts
that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones - is a
well-established finding of social science. It seems to have been a
factor here. Erdely believed the university was obstructing justice. She
felt she had been blocked. Like many other universities, UVA had a
flawed record of managing sexual assault cases. Jackie’s experience
seemed to confirm this larger pattern. Her story seemed well established
on campus, repeated and accepted.
“If I had been informed ahead
of time of one problem or discrepancy with her overall story, we would
have acted upon that very aggressively,” Dana said. “There were plenty
of other stories we could have told in this piece.” If anyone had raised
doubts about how verifiable Jackie’s narrative was, her case could have
been summarized “in a paragraph deep in the story.”
doubts came to his attention, he said. As to the apparent gaps in
reporting, attribution and verification that had accumulated in the
story’s drafts, Dana said, “I had a faith that as it went through the
fact-checking that all this was going to be straightened out.”
Fact-checking: 'Above my pay grade'...
At Rolling Stone, every story is assigned to a fact-checker....
Magazine fact-checking departments typically
employ younger reporters or college graduates....
To be effective, checkers
must be empowered to challenge the decisions of writers and editors who
may be much more senior and experienced.
In this case, the
fact-checker assigned to “A Rape on Campus” had been checking stories as
a freelancer for about three years, and had been on staff for one and a
half years. She relied heavily on Jackie, as Erdely had done. She said
she was “also aware of the fact that UVA believed this story to be
true.” That was a misunderstanding. What Rolling Stone knew at
the time of publication was that Jackie had given a version of her
account to UVA and other student activists. A university employee,
Renda, had made reference to that account in congressional testimony.
UVA had placed Phi Kappa Psi under scrutiny. None of this meant that the
university had reached a conclusion about Jackie’s narrative. The
checker did not provide the school with the details of Jackie’s account
to Erdely of her assault at Phi Kappa Psi....
She did not raise her concerns with her boss, Coco McPherson, who
heads the checking department. “I have instructed members of my staff to
come to me when they have problems or are concerned or feel that they
need some muscle,” McPherson said. “That did not happen.” Asked if there
was anything she should have been notified about, McPherson answered:
“The obvious answers are the three friends. These decisions not to reach
out to these people were made by editors above my pay grade.”
read the final draft. This was a provocative, complex story heavily
reliant on a single source. She said later that she had faith in
everyone involved and didn’t see the need to raise any issues with the
editors. She was the department head ultimately responsible for
Natalie Krodel, an in-house lawyer for Wenner
Media, conducted a legal review of the story before publication. Krodel
had been on staff for several years and typically handled about half of Rolling Stone’s
pre-publication reviews, sharing the work with general counsel Dana
Rosen. [Footnote 4] It is not clear what questions the lawyer may have
raised about the draft. Erdely and the editors involved declined to
answer questions about the specifics of the legal review, citing
instructions from the magazine’s outside counsel, Elizabeth McNamara, a
partner at Davis Wright Tremaine. McNamara said Rolling Stone would not answer questions about the legal review of “A Rape on Campus” in order to protect attorney-client privilege.
The Editor’s Note: ‘I Was Pretty Freaked Out’
On Dec. 5, following Erdely’s early-morning declaration that she had lost confidence in her sourcing, Rolling Stone posted an editor’s note on its website that effectively withdrew the magazine’s reporting on Jackie’s case.
The note was composed and published hastily. The editors had heard that The Washington Post
intended to publish a story that same day calling the magazine’s
reporting into question. They had also heard that Phi Kappa Psi would
release a statement disputing some of Rolling Stone’s account.
Dana said there was no time to conduct a “forensic investigation” into
the story’s issues. He wrote the editor’s note “very quickly” and “under
a lot of pressure.”
He posted it at about noon, under his
signature. “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,” it read. That language deflected
blame from the magazine to its subject and it attracted yet more
criticism. Dana said he rued his initial wording. “I was pretty freaked
out,” he said. “I regretted using that phrase pretty quickly.” Early
that evening, he changed course in a series of tweets. “That failure is
on us - not on her,” he wrote. A revised editor’s note, using similar
language, appeared the next day.
Yet the final version still strained to defend Rolling Stone’s
performance. It said that Jackie’s friends and student activists at UVA
“strongly supported her account.” That implied that these friends had
direct knowledge of the reported rape. In fact, the students supported
Jackie as a survivor, friend and fellow campus reformer. They had heard
her story, but they could not independently confirm it.
Looking forward. For Rolling Stone: An Exceptional Lapse or a Failure of Policy?
The collapse of “A Rape on Campus” does not involve the kinds of
fabrication by reporters that have occurred in some other infamous cases
of journalistic meltdown. In 2003, The New York Times reporter
Jayson Blair resigned after editors concluded that he had invented
stories from whole cloth.
In February, NBC News suspended anchor Brian
Williams after he admitted that he told tall tales about his wartime
reporting in Iraq. There is no evidence in Erdely’s materials or from
interviews with her subjects that she invented facts; the problem was
that she relied on what Jackie told her without vetting its accuracy.
been an extraordinarily painful and humbling experience,” Woods said.
“I’ve learned that even the most trusted and experienced people -
including, and maybe especially, myself - can make grave errors in
Yet Rolling Stone’s senior editors are
unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them
to change their editorial systems. “It’s not like I think we need to
overhaul our process, and I don’t think we need to necessarily institute
a lot of new ways of doing things,” Dana said. “We just have to do what
we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.”
Coco McPherson, the fact-checking chief, said, “I one hundred percent
do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think
decisions were made around those because of the subject matter.”
better and clearer policies about reporting practices, pseudonyms and
attribution might well have prevented the magazine’s errors. The
checking department should have been more assertive about questioning
editorial decisions that the story’s checker justifiably doubted. Dana
said he was not told of reporting holes like the failure to contact the
three friends or the decision to use misleading attributions to obscure
Stronger policy and clearer staff understanding in at least three areas might have changed the final outcome:
Pseudonyms. Dana, Woods and McPherson said using pseudonyms at Rolling Stone
is a “case by case” issue that requires no special convening or review.
Pseudonyms are inherently undesirable in journalism....Rolling Stone should consider banning
Checking Derogatory Information.
Erdely and Woods made the fateful agreement not to check with the three
friends. If the fact-checking department had understood that such a
practice was unacceptable, the outcome would almost certainly have
Confronting Subjects With Details. When Erdely
sought “comment,” she missed the opportunity to hear challenging,
detailed rebuttals from Phi Kappa Psi before publication. The
fact-checker relied only on Erdely’s communications with the fraternity
and did not independently confirm with Phi Kappa Psi the account Rolling Stone
intended to publish about Jackie’s assault. If both the reporter and
checker had understood that by policy they should routinely share
specific, derogatory details with the subjects of their reporting, Rolling Stone might have veered in a different direction....
[Allen W. Groves, the University dean of students, and Nicole Eramo, an
assistant dean of students, separately wrote to the authors of this
report that the story’s account of their actions was inaccurate.
3. In a letter, Groves objected to Rolling Stone’s portrayal of his actions during a University of Virginia Board of Visitors meeting last September. A video of the meeting
is available on a UVA website. Groves wrote that Erdely “did not
disclose the significant details that I had offered into the scope” of a
Department of Education compliance review of UVA. Groves’s full letter
In the email sent through her lawyer, Eramo wrote, Rolling Stone "made numerous false statements and misleading implications about the
manner in which I conducted my job as the Chair of University of
Virginia’s Sexual Misconduct Board, including allegations about specific
student cases. Although the law prohibits me from commenting on those
specific cases in order to protect the privacy of the students who I
counsel, I can say that the account of my actions in Rolling Stone is
false and misleading. The article trivializes the complexities of
providing trauma-informed support to survivors and the real difficulties
inherent in balancing respect for the wishes of survivors while also
providing for the safety of our communities. As a general matter, I do
not — and have never — allowed the possibility of a media story to
influence the way I have counseled students or the decisions I have made
in my position. And contrary to the quote attributed to me in Rolling
Stone, I have never called the University of Virginia “the rape school,”
nor have I ever suggested — either professionally or privately — that
parents would not “want to send their daughter” to UVA. As a UVA
alumna, and as someone who has lived in the Charlottesville community
for over 20 years, I have a deep and profound love for this University
and the students who study here.”
4. Last December, Rosen left
Wenner Media for ALM Media, where she is general counsel. Rosen said her
departure had no connection with “A Rape on Campus” and that she had
played no part in reviewing the story before publication. She said she
began talking with ALM in September, before Erdely’s story was filed,
about the position she ultimately accepted."
"Sheila Coronel, Steve Coll, and Derek Kravitz wrote this report. Sheila Coronel is Dean of Academic Affairs at the Columbia Journalism School and director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism,
Steve Coll is the Dean of Columbia Journalism School, and Derek Kravitz
is a postgraduate research scholar at Columbia Journalism School."