'Rolling Stone' Rape Story Report Details 'Systemic Failing' By Magazine
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
A story of journalistic failure that was avoidable - that's the conclusion of a lengthy independent review of a story about campus rape that ran in Rolling Stone last November. That story detailed claims of a horrific gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity party, but it quickly became suspect as other reporters raised doubts about the truth of the accuser's account. Rolling Stone has now officially retracted its report and apologized to its readers. The investigation into what went wrong with the reporting is damning. Steve Coll led that investigation. He's dean of the Columbia Journalism School, and he joins me now. Welcome to the program.
STEVE COLL: Thanks, Melissa. Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: And, Steve, you found lapses across all levels by the reporters, Sabrina Rubin Erdely - also by her editors and fact-checkers at Rolling Stone. What was at the root of what went wrong?
COLL: Well, I think they got caught up in a relationship with their subject that, for whatever reason, caused them not to do basics of verification. So they didn't check derogatory information with the people that they intended to write about unflatteringly. They didn't provide the subjects of their reporting with a proper opportunity to respond to the details of what they thought they had, and they didn't track people down who they might have. You know, you call people when you're writing about them unfavorably because it's fair, but actually you also discover new facts. It changes your story just to keep reporting that way.
BLOCK: One of the things that the reporters and editors told you was that the problem was they were too accommodating - too deferential a presumed survivor of sexual assault. She was given the pseudonym Jackie in their piece. They didn't want to re-traumatize her by asking too many questions, getting names of her attackers. How do you balance that concern for a victim with truthful and accurate reporting?
COLL: Well, part of the answer, I think, lies in the compact between the reporter and the subject on the front end. There has to be a mutual understanding of what journalism requires without having that be traumatizing to the survivor. That's one insight I think that we would offer. Another is that you have to be prepared as a journalist to walk away if your subject isn't ready for that kind of reporting.
BLOCK: You refer to something known as confirmation bias in your investigation. How did that play out in the case of this reporting?
COLL: We tend to select the facts that are aligned with our pre-existing assumptions or our pre-existing beliefs. As a reporter you have to be aware of this phenomenon. You have to be aware of it in yourself. You have to be aware of it in the people around you, and you have to recognize that sometimes it's emotionally unpleasant to do what's required, which is to challenge your assumptions or to look for facts that are not aligned with what you already believe. So what you see here is - in the record that we went through, the 400 pages of the reporter's notes and all of the interviews we did - you feel, like, this wave is building up at Rolling Stone involving the reporter and her editors and everyone else at the magazine. And it's only rolling in one direction. And there were little moments along the way where somebody put their hand up and said, wait, maybe this isn't complete or maybe we should be stopping and checking this or that. But the wave was just too forceful and it was all going in one direction.
BLOCK: Since your report came out, the publisher of Rolling Stone, Jann Wenner, told The New York Times that he considers the accuser a really expert fabulist - storyteller. Something sits at her doorstep, he says - something that's untruthful. What do you make of the magazine's response to this?
COLL: We don't agree that Jackie bears responsibility for Rolling Stone's failure. This was on Rolling Stone. This was a failure of their methodology.
BLOCK: Well, Rolling Stone says that it doesn't need to change its editorial systems. They say, we just have to do what we've always done. Nobody's getting fired. Their reporter, apparently, will write for them again. Do you think people should have lost their jobs over this?
COLL: I don't feel like I'm in a position to judge that question. We've gotten asked it a lot today. And we did not find evidence of the kind of dishonesty, lying to colleagues about your reporting or lying to your editor about where you've been and who you've interviewed, plagiarism - that sort of thing, which are, at least in my mind, grounds for almost automatic firing or very serious sanction. Instead, this was a collective failure of judgment and methodology that was also tied to the magazine's policies, and so deciding how to hold individuals accountable for that failure really belongs to Rolling Stone.
BLOCK: OK. Steve Coll, thanks very much for talking with us.
COLL: Thank you, Melissa. Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: Steve Coll is dean of the Columbia School of Journalism. He co-authored the investigation "'A Rape On Campus': What Went Wrong?" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.