It Wasn't Jackie's Job to Get the Details of Her Rape Correct - It Was Rolling Stone's
olling Stone just doesn’t get it. Months after the magazine published a widely-criticized article about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, the details of which proved unverifiable, those responsible still refuse to take any real responsibility. Instead, editors at the magazine once again placed the blame for their errors where it so often ends up when it comes to sexual assault: on a young woman who alleges she was raped.
On Sunday night, Rolling Stone released the results of an external investigation conducted by Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, who calls the 2014 article an “avoidable” failure. The reporter behind the story, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, has apologized and her original article has been replaced with the extensive report.
Coll’s findings show multiple layers of mistakes and and easily-fixed lapses of judgement from Erdely, multiple editors, a fact-checker and possibly an in-house lawyer. Yet instead of fully owning up to their obvious and egregious journalistic errors, Rolling Stone blames their failures on – wait for it – caring too much about rape victims.
Coll reported that “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.”
Sean Woods, the main editor of the article, said, “we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting.”
But these mistakes were not made because writers and editors were protecting a young woman they believed to be traumatized. Coll found that, despite the editors’ insistence that mistakes made were out of a heightened sensitivity to rape victims, “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,” he wrote.
And, from the first sign of trouble, Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana answered questions about the magazine’s reporting by calling into question Jackie’s story – an important distinction, and certainly not in keeping with their stated desire to protect Jackie. In his first statement in response to questions about the veracity of the journalism, Dana then wrote that “there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.”
Dana now says he regrets the wording he used and, after external criticism, changed the statement. But the sentiment within the magazine remains the same: the blame for the problems with their reporting is Jackie’s, and any mistakes made were because of a fear of further traumatizing a rape victim.
Fact-checking chief Coco McPherson said to Coll, “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.”
Senior staff at the magazine are so sure that the errors made in the piece were a fluke related to the topic that there will be no disciplinary action in the wake of the investigation, nor will Rolling Stone editors amend their editorial process. “I don’t think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things,” Dana said.
Yet over and over again, the report makes clear that it wasn’t deference to Jackie at the center of the magazine’s missteps, but numerous bad decisions in the writing and editing process: they didn’t follow up on key details, they didn’t verify quotes, they used a single source, they employed inadequate fact-checking and more.
Rolling Stone’s claim that their mistakes all came out of concern for a young rape victim are irresponsible: in the midst of an all-out backlash against so-called PC culture and anti-rape activism, they shirked their real responsibility both to Jackie and to all the victims of sexual assault, and it will have a resounding impact on those working to end sexual violence.
Rolling Stone created a mess for the men and women trying to end sexual violence on campus and off, and it should be the magazine’s job to clean it up. They’ve chosen instead to wash their hands of any wrongdoing – all because of their deep respect for rape victims.