Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Sunday, April 5, 2015 10:35 pm

The post-mortem on Rolling Stone’s rape-at-UVa article: You say your mother loves you? Check it out.

UPDATED below.

Report by Columbia here; the key bits (emphasis mine):

The particulars of Rolling Stone‘s failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail. … The magazine’s records and interviews with participants show that the failure of “A Rape on Campus” was not due to a lack of resources. The problem was methodology, compounded by an environment where several journalists with decades of collective experience failed to surface and debate problems about their reporting or to heed the questions they did receive from a fact-checking colleague.

In retrospect, [Will] Dana, the managing editor, who has worked at Rolling Stone since 1996, said the story’s breakdown reflected both an “individual failure” and “procedural failure, an institutional failure. … Every single person at every level of this thing had opportunities to pull the strings a little harder, to question things a little more deeply, and that was not done.” …

Yet the explanation that Rolling Stone failed because it deferred to a victim cannot adequately account for what went wrong. [Article author Sabrina] Erdely’s reporting records and interviews with participants make clear that the magazine did not pursue important reporting paths even when Jackie [the pseudonym the magazine used for the purported victim] 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. …

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 may or may not have more to say about the details later, after I have re-read the report, but I can say this just as I did soon after questions about the report arose: Failure to independently verify a primary source’s claims is journalistic malpractice, and the article’s author, Sabrina Erdely, manifestly failed to independently verify her primary source’s claims — and in some instances didn’t even try. And the article’s editor, Sean Woods, and the magazine’s managing editor, Will Dana, were aware of holes in Erdely’s reporting and let the article run anyway.

Rolling Stone’s fact-checker assigned to the case raised questions that the editors ultimately failed to answer. The report quotes Coco McPherson, the fact-checking chief, as saying, “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.” It’s not clear whether McPherson means “around” as a synonym for “about” (an increasingly common usage I despise precisely because it creates confusion like this) or whether she means that the policies are fine but were bypassed in this case.

At any rate, fact-checking is worthless if discrepancies that are found aren’t fully investigated. Rolling Stone’s fact-checker (who isn’t named in the report because she had no control over the ultimate content of the article) appears to have done her job — and to have been ignored by Erdely, with the complicity of Woods and Dana. McPherson, the fact-checking chief, is basically saying that Woods and Dana ignored her employee’s work because of the sensitivity of working with a primary source who claimed to have been a sexual-assault victim. If in fact that was the case, well, that’s not good enough.

I don’t think, contrary to some accusations, that Erdely fabricated the story. But she deferred excessively to a source whom even minimal attempts at verification would have shown to be questionable. And Wills and Dana didn’t demand enough documentation. The question remains why. McPherson has her theory, but Wills and Dana themselves don’t say. We may never know. We can only speculate. And I imagine that the culture warriors all along the spectrum are ready, willing, and able to serve up piping-hot scenarios that might or might not bear any relationship to reality.

Beyond that, this episode has probably made life harder for women who have been sexually assaulted — it provides fodder for people of bad faith who want to argue that sexual assault isn’t a big problem or a big deal, and that false reports are common. Erdely, Woods, and Dana owe their readers an apology, but they owe these survivors an even bigger one.

As of this writing, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner is saying no one at the magazine will be disciplined, and Erdely will continue to write for the magazine, because he believes that the errors were unintentional. Not that what I think matters, but I think all three should be fired. Checking facts is Journalism 101, even for news outlets without the resources and fact-checking infrastructure of a Rolling Stone. The quantity and quality of the unforced errors that led to the publication of this unsupported story are simply too egregious to be ignored.

UPDATE: Reaction from some others in or formerly in media.

UPDATE: Columbia Journalism Review interviews the report authors.

UPDATE: Erdely’s public apology. Note that she did not apologize to Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity named in the article and an organization that suffered real, albeit not life-shattering, consequences.

UPDATE: The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple summarizes the report and lists those victimized by the Rolling Stone article.

I also recommend that you read press critic Jay Rosen’s take whenever it appears on his site, Pressthink.org. As of midnight Sunday, he hadn’t posted yet, but he has said his take is in progress. UPDATE: It’s here, and I quote from it Rosen’s discussion of an important angle that the report authors didn’t consider in any depth:

5. The most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative and go in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative. The key term isemblematic. The report has too little to say about that fateful decision, probably because it’s not a breach of procedure but standard procedure in magazine-style journalism. (Should it be?) This is my primary criticism of the Columbia report: it has too little to say about the “emblem of…” problem.

6. Not that it’s entirely missing. The basic facts are there:

Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show “what it’s like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture,” according to Erdely’s notes of the conversation.

Idea: Maybe “a single, emblematic college rape case” does not exist. Maybe the hunt for such was ill-conceived from the start. Maybe that’s the wrong way for Rolling Stone to have begun.

7. This is from Paul Farhi’s Nov. 28 account in the Washington Post:

So, for six weeks starting in June, Erdely interviewed students from across the country. She talked to people at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. None of those schools felt quite right. But one did: the University of Virginia, a public school, Southern and genteel, brimming with what Erdely calls “super-smart kids” and steeped in the legacy of its founder, Thomas Jefferson.

None of those schools felt quite right. What kind of “feel” is this? It’s feeling for a fit between discovered story and a prior — given — narrative.

8. “Mr. Dana said the article stemmed from a feeling he and other senior editors had over summer that the issue of unpunished campus rapes would make a compelling and important story,” read Ravi Somaiya’s Dec. 7 report in the New York Times. There’s the prior narrative I mentioned. It didn’t start with Sabrina Rubin Erdely. She was sent on a search for where to set it.

Rosen also makes clear just how badly Rolling Stone screwed up in its reliance on “Jackie” as a primary source:

14. Part of what made Rolling Stone editors vulnerable to the “emblem of…” problem was some seriously dated thinking about credibility, in which it’s said to be sort of like charisma. You have charisma or you don’t. You “have” credibility or you don’t. If a source is felt to be credible, the entire story can ride on that. Your colleagues are credible, so it doesn’t occur you to ask if they could all be missing something.

A dramatic high point for this kind of thinking comes during Hannah Rosin’s incredible podcast interview with Sabrina Erdely. Rosin asks near the end of it: If you were Jackie’s lawyer, how would you prove her case? (Go to 6:35 on this clip and listen.) The author’s reply: “I found her story to be very— I found her to be very credible.”

15. It’s almost like, if you have credibility you don’t need proof. That’s an absurd statement, of course, but here’s how they got there (without realizing it.) Instead of asking: what have we done in telling Jackie’s story to earn the skeptical user’s belief? you say: I’m a skeptical journalist, I found her story believable, so will the users. Voilà! Credibility. Will Dana is one of the best editors in New York. Who “has” more credibility than him? No one! He finds her story believable. Doesn’t that “give” it credibility too?

In short, journalism is supposed to be built around the discipline of verification … and the people and process that led to Rolling Stone’s story were utterly undisciplined.

UPDATE: Mediagazer links to other sources on the story, some of which duplicate items above, here.

UPDATE: Several years ago, the Center for Public Integrity published a series of articles on campus sexual assault. While the details of the cases discussed might not be as spectacular as those in Rolling Stone’s article, the reporting is far better documented.

UPDATE: I should have disclosed earlier that I once sold an article to Rolling Stone, back in 1986. I’ve had no dealings with them since.

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