Lessons Learned From ‘Rolling Stone’s’ “A Rape on Campus”

When Rolling Stone published “A Rape on Campus” in November 2014, the harrowing story of young woman gang-raped by a fraternity at the University of Virginia went viral instantly. It was powerful reporting by writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely, using the testimony of “Jackie” in order to paint a damming portrait of the college’s institutional response to a case of human brutality. The story received 2.7 million views, “more than any other feature not about a celebrity that the magazine had ever published,” according to Rolling Stone.

Yet once it was published, the story came under fire and controversy. On December 5, 2014, The Washington Post ran a piece calling the reporting and Jackie’s account of that night into question. Rolling Stone editor Will Dana then wrote an apology regarding the piece. Yesterday, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, led by its dean Steve Coll, issued the blockbuster (and Rolling Stone-commissioned) report on the journalistic and ethical failings that led to the problems with “A Rape on Campus.”

With the publication of this report, the story has officially been retracted. In the bulk of this gripping, 12,000-word-long report, there are quite a few lessons about how journalists can work smarter, even in difficult times, and how institutions can be taken to task.

The problem with depending on one case

Campus sexual assault has been a recurring topic in the news. There have been high-profile cases at a variety of schools (from Harvard to Florida State) inspiring campus activism and protest (Emma Sulkowicz’s “Carry That Weight” at Columbia). The subject was and continues to be a viable one for journalists to address. But when a UVA administrator put Erdely in touch with Jackie and her horrific story, the reporter had, in her mind, found the right scary, gripping tale that could illustrate the problem with the whole system.

Here is where the report, in its dry recounting, gets fascinating. Erdely felt as if Jackie’s story was the one, but Jackie proved to be elusive, sitting down for some interviews while ignoring Erdely other times.
“The 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,” the report says. This accommodation led to treating Jackie with kid gloves, taking her experiences at face value and not doing the leg work to figure out who she mentioned in her story: her three roommates, or the lifeguard who “orchestrated” her rape. In the final edits, afraid of alienating Jackie, the magazine ended up using pseudonyms and attempting to make it clear that this experience was from Jackie’s perspective.

How “A Rape on Campus” fell apart

Erdely and Rolling Stone didn’t find Jackie’s “three roommates.” Other outlets did the legwork and talked to the people that Jackie mentioned.

If Erdely had reached Ryan Duffin – his true name – he would have said that he had never told Jackie that he would not participate in Rolling Stone‘s “shit show,” Duffin said in an interview for this report. The entire conversation with Ryan that Jackie described to Erdely “never happened,” he said. Jackie had never tried to contact him about cooperating with Rolling Stone. He hadn’t seen Jackie or communicated with her since the previous April, he said.

These people exist, and these people contradicted Jackie’s statements about what happened that night. As the report concludes: “Checking derogatory information with subjects is a matter of fairness, but it can also produce surprising new facts.”

The failure of institutions

Rolling Stone failed to tell Jackie’s story accurately, and in doing so, they failed Jackie and everyone involved, from Phi Kappa Psi to the University of Virginia. Erdely’s reporting on how the University of Virginia handles rape was, in this case, colored by the story’s inherent bias. UVA stonewalled Erdely regarding Jackie, but then again, Jackie’s case was more complicated than her media-friendly tale of horror. Rolling Stone admitted its failure by reaching out to the institution in question (a college in this case), in order to suss out the truth. The resulting report is messy, ethically dubious in a variety of ways, and at the end of the day, raises more questions than it answers.

Should Sabrina Rubin Erdely write again?

Erdely’s legitimacy as a journalist will obviously be questioned. She was seduced by Jackie’s story, and she wanted that story to be the hook for her report, to the detriment of her work. And yet the hordes on Twitter calling for her head feel somewhat misguided; the story was not quite as maleficent as a case of plagiarism or fabrication. (We’re all aware that fabulist Jonah Lehrer will ride and write again, yes?) Still, the debacle certainly shows that Erdely has lessons to learn when it comes to writing a thorough, verifiable report. It will be interesting to see whether her career survives this blow. Only Michael Finkel, a formerly humiliated journalist who stumbled onto a crazy tale that eventually became the upcoming James Franco movie True Story, comes to mind as a journalist who has truly “come back” from this sort of struggle.

The ultimate tragedy of the piece

Some crimes and abuses of power are in black and white. There are heroes and villains. Rape is more complicated than a simple narrative. While Rolling Stone‘s heart was in the right place, the mistakes that they made meant that their own ineptitude became the story; usurping the experiences of the many other women who have survived campus sexual assault, and the darkness that they have to live with afterwards. “A Rape on Campus” is its own tragedy, where the desire to write the definitive piece on what’s wrong with how institutions handle rape and rape culture led to the potential blotting out of real, powerful stories. Stories that we need to hear.