The Volokh Conspiracy

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Columbia School of Journalism report on Rolling Stone's 'A Rape on Campus'


FILE—Students participating in rush pass by the Phi Kappa Psi house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., in this Jan. 15, 2015 file photo. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

The just-released report (by Columbia School of Journalism Dean Steve Coll and Academic Affairs Dean Sheila Coronel, plus Columbia research scholar Derek Kravitz) details massive departures from the basic norms of original reporting. (For the original story itself, see here.) Among other things:

1. Jackie, the alleged rape victim whose story was told by the magazine, named three friends she had talked to about the incident, and who (according to her) seemed to care more about their social lives than about supporting her or finding the attackers. The reporter never got in touch with those friends to hear their side of the story, which turned out to be very different from Jackie's. What's more, the story attributed statements to one of the friends without acknowledging that Rolling Stone had never talked to the friend:

Greek life is huge at UVA, with nearly one-third of undergrads belonging to a fraternity or sorority, so Jackie fears the backlash could be big—a "shitshow" predicted by her now-former friend Randall, who, citing his loyalty to his own frat, declined to be interviewed.

But it turns out that, according to the Columbia report, the only source for the proposition that "Randall" (actually named Ryan) "declined to be interviewed" was Jackie herself:

With her digital recorder running, the reporter again asked about speaking to Ryan. "I did talk to Ryan," Jackie disclosed. She said she had bumped into him and had asked if he would be interested in talking to Rolling Stone. Jackie went on to quote Ryan's incredulous reaction: "No! . . . I'm in a fraternity here, Jackie, I don't want the Greek system to go down, and it seems like that's what you want to happen. . . . I don't want to be a part of whatever little shit show you're running."

Rather than having the magazine check this with Ryan,

[Editor Sean] Woods allowed the ["s- show"] quote from "Randall" into the story without making it clear that [writer Sabrina Rubin] Erdely had not gotten it from him but from Jackie. "I made that call," Woods said. Not only did this mislead readers about the quote's origins, it also compounded the false impression that Rolling Stone knew who "Randall" was and had sought his and the other friends' side of the story.

And in fact,

If Erdely had reached Ryan Duffin [the true name of "Randall"], he would have said that he had never told Jackie that he would not participate in Rolling Stone's ["s- 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.

2. Jackie eventually gave some identifying information about her date that night—the story labeled the date with the pseudonym "Drew"—who she said was heavily involved in the incident. Rolling Stone couldn't find a person matching this description, and thus didn't talk to him. Yet (emphasis added),

Rolling Stone's editors did not make clear to readers that Erdely and her editors did not know "Drew's" true name, had not talked to him and had been unable to verify that he existed. That was fundamental to readers' understanding. In one draft of the story, Erdely did include a disclosure. She wrote that Jackie "refuses to divulge [Drew's] full name to RS," because she is "gripped by fears she can barely articulate." Woods cut that passage as he was editing. He "debated adding it back in" but "ultimately chose not to."

3. When Erdely did try to reach people at Phi Kappa Psi for their side of the story, she offered fraternity officials few details about the accusations, thus making it very hard for the officials to rebut the allegations:

Last October, as she was finishing her story, Erdely emailed Stephen Scipione, Phi Kappa Psi's local chapter president. "I've become aware of allegations of gang rape that have been made against the UVA chapter of Phi Kappa Psi," Erdely wrote. "Can you comment on those allegations?"

It was a decidedly truncated version of the facts that Erdely believed she had in hand. She did not reveal Jackie's account of the date of the attack. She did not reveal that Jackie said Phi Kappa Psi had hosted a "date function" that night, that prospective pledges were present or that the man who allegedly orchestrated the attack was a Phi Kappa Psi member who was also a lifeguard at the university aquatic center.

Erdely next telephoned Shawn Collinsworth, then Phi Kappa Psi's national executive director. Collinsworth volunteered a summary of what UVA had passed on to the fraternity's leaders: that there were allegations of "gang rape during Phi Psi parties" and that one assault "took place in September 2012."

Erdely asked him, according to her notes, "Can you comment?"

If Erdely had provided Scipione and Collinsworth the full details she possessed instead of asking simply for "comment," the fraternity might have investigated the facts she presented. After Rolling Stone published, Phi Kappa Psi said it did just that. Scipione said in an interview that a review of the fraternity's social media archives and bank records showed that the fraternity had held no date function or other party on the night Jackie said she was raped. A comparison of fraternity membership rolls with aquatic center employment records showed that it had no members who worked as lifeguards, Scipione added.

Erdely said Scipione had seemed "really vague," so she focused on getting a reply from Collinsworth. "I felt that I gave him a full opportunity to respond," she said. "I felt very strongly that he already knew what the allegations were because they'd been told by UVA." As it turned out, however, the version of the attack [that had been] provided to Phi Kappa Psi [earlier by UVA] was quite different from and less detailed than the one Jackie had provided to Erdely.

Scipione said that Rolling Stone did not provide the detailed information the fraternity required to respond properly to the allegations. "It was complete bulls-," he said. "They weren't telling me what they were going to write about. They weren't telling me any dates or details." Collinsworth said that he was also not provided the details of the attack that ultimately appeared in Rolling Stone.

There are cases where reporters may choose to withhold some details of what they plan to write while seeking verification for fear that the subject might "front run" by rushing out a favorably spun version preemptively. There are sophisticated journalistic subjects in politics and business that sometimes burn reporters in this way. Even so, it is risky for a journalist to withhold detailed derogatory information from any subject before publication. Here, there was no apparent need to fear "front-running" by Phi Kappa Psi.

Even if Rolling Stone did not trust Phi Kappa Psi's motivations, if it had given the fraternity a chance to review the allegations in detail, the factual discrepancies the fraternity probably would have reported might have led Erdely and her editors to try to verify Jackie's account more thoroughly.

* * *

The key problem, as the report puts it, is that "the editors invested Rolling Stone's reputation in a single source."

Woods and Erdely knew Jackie had spoken about her assault with other activists on campus, with at least one suitemate and to UVA. They could not imagine that Jackie would invent such a story. Woods said he and Erdely "both came to the decision that this person was telling the truth." They saw her as a "whistle blower" who was fighting indifference and inertia at the university.

The problem of confirmation bias—the tendency of people to be trapped by preexisting assumptions and to select facts that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones—is a well-established finding of social science. It seems to have been a factor here.

Some people asked me if I could offer some thoughts on whether Rolling Stone might be liable for defamation, assuming some person or organization mentioned in the story sues. I hope to blog something about that shortly, based on my December post on the subject (and also this post on why the university itself can't sue). [UPDATE: The new post is now up.] But for now, I just thought I'd pass along a link to the report itself, together with some key excerpts.