When it became clear that Rolling Stone’s November 2014 story on the fraternity rape of a University of Virginia student was falling apart, RS managing editor Will Dana posted a hastily-composed editor’s note on the magazine’s website. “There now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account,” it read in part, “and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.”
Dana now says he was “pretty freaked out” when he wrote the note, and that he quickly “regretted using that phrase.” But Rolling Stone continues to blame Jackie for the implosion of their reporting on her alleged assault. In a New York Times interview just yesterday, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner called Jackie “a really expert fabulist storyteller,” and said that whatever is “untruthful” in the RS article “sits at her doorstep.”
It seems clear that Jackie misrepresented important facts when talking to Rolling Stone — though there is least some evidence that she was sexually assaulted on the night in question. But a comprehensive review of the story by the Columbia Journalism Review demonstrates that the blame for Rolling Stone’s now-discredited story lies with the magazine itself.
Rolling Stone claims that Jackie was an uncooperative and demanding source, and that they accepted restrictions on their reporting at her request. Jackie placed limits on what they could investigate and how, they say, and they agreed to those limits because they believed in her and her story.
In perhaps the most egregious lapse, Erdely failed to track down three friends Jackie claimed she disclosed the rape to immediately after it happened. Instead, she relied exclusively on Jackie’s account of their conversation — an account that paints all three in a negative (and they now say false) light, and which depicts the lone woman among the three as a callous, sexually promiscuous social climber. Worse, Erdely crafted the piece — over a fact-checker’s objections — in such a way as to leave the impression that some of the most damning of their quotes came from them, not from Jackie’s own recollections.
RS would have us believe that credulity is intrinsic to reporting on a rape. As Erdely puts it now, “maybe the discussion should not have been so much about how to accommodate her but … whether she would be in this story at all.”
But Rolling Stone’s failures did not emerge as the consequence of a laudable deference to rape survivors, or a principled insistence on believing Jackie. In fact, on several occasions when Jackie declined to provide supporting evidence she encouraged Erdely to find it elsewhere and Erdely simply did not.
In the case of Jackie’s three friends, for instance, Erdely now says that they were “always on my list” of potential interview subjects, but that other lines of inquiry ultimately took precedence. This is journalistic malpractice plain and simple, and it was rampant throughout the reporting and editing of the piece. As CJR puts it, RS “set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting” in covering the UVA rape story.
And it is simply not true that reporting on rape requires such compromises. As the CJR piece makes clear, thoughtful, careful, rigorous reporting on an alleged rape benefits everyone, including the accuser:
Kristen Lombardi, who spent a year and a half reporting the Center for Public Integrity’s series on campus sexual assault, said she made it explicit to the women she interviewed that the reporting process required her to obtain documents, collect evidence and talk to as many people involved in the case as possible, including the accused. She prefaced her interviews by assuring the women that she believed in them but that it was in their best interest to make sure there were no questions about the veracity of their accounts. She also allowed victims some control, including determining the time, place and pace of their interviews.
If a woman was not ready for such a process, Lombardi said, she was prepared to walk away.
If you are not ready to subject your story to scrutiny — thoughtful, compassionate, rigorous scrutiny — then you are not ready to have your story in a national magazine. It’s that simple.
A proper concern for the interests of survivors of sexual violence, and for the effort to combat sexual violence in the larger society, would have made that obvious.