The good news for Rolling Stone in the aftermath of Columbia University’s scathing report on what went wrong with its debunked story involving a rape at the University of Virginia: The publication and writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely can’t be accused of consciously trying to deceive readers like journalism’s rogues’ gallery of Janet Cookes, Jayson Blairs and Jack Kelleys did.
In reporting “A Rape on Campus,” Erdely — who Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana described as a “thorough and persnickety reporter” — apparently wanted to 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.”
The bad news: The embarrassing mistakes made in the execution of the sensational story were “avoidable,” according to the detailed report. Equally troubling is the fact that Rolling Stone’s missteps leave the public once again questioning the media’s sinking credibility and wondering how much of what they hear, see or read can be trusted.
“The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking,” the nearly 13,000-word report said. “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. The published story glossed over the gaps in the magazine’s reporting by using pseudonyms and by failing to state where important information had come from.”
In other words, in every conceivable way, Rolling Stone flunked the basic tenets of Journalism 101. It also didn’t help that Erdely’s noble premise sounded alarmingly like an agenda rather than the objective investigative pieces she’s known for. As a result, Rolling Stone’s editorial errors appear eerily similar to the ones featured in the Newseum’s News History Gallery where the failure to question, follow up and verify at The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today also had disastrous consequences.
In each paper’s case, editors’ reportorial instincts took a back seat to the pressures of publishing a scoop or sensational story. In each case, subsequent panel reviews led to tougher oversight, including tighter policies against the use of anonymous sources. Rolling Stone, which relied heavily on a source with the pseudonym of “Jackie,” has already signaled a change in policy.
In the months preceding the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, New York Times reporter Judith Miller wrote stories suggesting that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, often citing anonymous sources. Months after the war began, Miller and the Times acknowledged that many of her stories were based on misinformation. “We are only as good as our sources,” Miller said. “If they are wrong, we will be wrong.”
As Rolling Stone is now learning, being wrong can come with a steep price. In a worse-case scenario and the magazine’s worst nightmare, the University of Virginia chapter of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity announced April 6 that it is suing the publication for “reckless” reporting. Now, in addition to asking “what went wrong,” Rolling Stone must now ponder how a totally avoidable error turned into — from the fraternity’s point of view — an unavoidable lawsuit.