Investigative reporting is about discovery of a story, not confirmation of your notions.
That is the key mistake Rolling Stone made in its false, and now retracted, story “A Rape on Campus,” as I read the Columbia School of Journalism report on the fiasco.
“Rolling Stone’s repudiation of the main narrative in ‘A Rape on Campus’ is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking,” wrote the Columbia authors, Sheila Coronel, J-School Dean Steve Coll and Derek Kravitz.
The failure started, though, with a preconceived notion of what the story should be. Reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely; Sean Woods, the primary editor of the story; and Will Dana, managing editor; had too strong a vision of what the story should be and not a strong enough commitment to learn what it really was.
I worked on a series on rape in 1993 for the Omaha World-Herald. We started out pursuing a notion about rape, focusing on rape by strangers, prompted by a series of rapes in an Omaha neighborhood.
We did report on that series of rapes and about stranger rape, but our series focused more heavily on two surprising factors that we found in our wider study of the issues: the startlingly low number of rapes that actually result in rape convictions and the startlingly high percentage of rape victims who were younger than 18.
The series we produced ended up being significantly different from the series we planned. That should be the case in most investigative stories: You make a plan to investigate a topic, not to support a premise. A good story investigated well takes you directions you didn’t anticipate.
If Rolling Stone had been trying to discover the story, the reporter and the editors would have insisted on talking to the friends of their primary source, whom they identified as “Jackie.” They would have insisted on talking to her date on the night in question, and to other men and women who attended the supposed “date night” at Phi Kappa Psi, the University of Virginia fraternity smeared by Rolling Stone‘s story.
Unlike Rolling Stone, we didn’t focus in our 1993 series on a single “emblematic” rape situation to tell in detail. We told stories of multiple rape survivors. Some profiles told more about circumstances of the rape. Others focused on the trauma the person experienced or the treatment she received. They told the story together, rather than burdening a single story with representing everything that we found in our investigation.
It is difficult to prove details of a rape, because accounts of what happened invariably conflict and witnesses to the actual crime are rare, unless they were participants, as Jackie alleged in the Rolling Stone story.
However, you can find confirmation (or conflict) in the circumstances surrounding a rape. In my various stories about rape, I have confirmed details about circumstances by obtaining police and medical reports and by interviewing friends, family members and attorneys of suspects and accusers.
Erdely did seek details, the Columbia report said:
In the end, the reporter relied heavily on Jackie for help in getting access to corroborating evidence and interviews. Erdely asked Jackie for introductions to friends and family. She asked for text messages to confirm parts of Jackie’s account, for records from Jackie’s employment at the aquatic center and for health records. She even asked to examine the bloodstained red dress Jackie said she had worn on the night she said she was attacked.
For all that, though, the report concluded, Rolling Stone failed to pursue multiple opportunities to confirm details of Jackie’s story (or learn of the weaknesses in the story):
There were a number of ways that Erdely might have reported further, on her own, to verify what Jackie had told her. Jackie told the writer that one of her rapists had been part of a small discussion group in her anthropology class. Erdely might have tried to verify independently that there was such a group and to identify the young man Jackie described. She might have examined Phi Kappa Psi’s social media for members she could interview and for evidence of a party on the night Jackie described. Erdely might have looked for students who worked at the aquatic center and sought out clues about the lifeguard Jackie had described. Any one of these and other similar reporting paths might have led to discoveries that would have caused Rolling Stone to reconsider its plans. But three failures of reporting effort stand out. They involve basic, even routine journalistic practice – not special investigative effort. And if these reporting pathways had been followed, Rolling Stone very likely would have avoided trouble.
Those three critical failures were:
- Erdely did not contact the friends Jackie said she talked with shortly after the assault that she described. Jackie never asked the reporter not to contact her friends independently.
- Erdely asked the fraternity for a comment late in the reporting process, but never provided details of the story for them to address.
- Erdely’s efforts to track down the alleged assailant were not diligent enough even to determine that no member of the fraternity worked at the aquatic center where Jackie was a lifeguard.
The one lifeguard at the pool who had the name Jackie used for her assailant was “not a member of Phi Kappa Psi, however,” the Columbia report said. “The police interviewed him and examined his personal records. They found no evidence to link him to Jackie’s assault. If Rolling Stone had located him and heard his response to Jackie’s allegations, including the verifiable fact that he did not belong to Phi Kappa Psi, this might have led Erdely to reconsider her focus on that case. In any event, Rolling Stone stopped looking for him.”
One of the most disappointing aspects of the report is Rolling Stone‘s response. Woods continues to point the finger at Jackie: “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” he told the Columbia investigators.
That’s bullshit. As I’ve noted before, journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of our stories. To me, one of the most disturbing aspects of the report is that Rolling Stone doesn’t recognize that this was a systemic failure, identifying problems the magazine must address. The reporter and editors just see the story as a result of mistakes they need to avoid repeating.
The Columbia report says:
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.
Nothing in this Rolling Stone fiasco was the fault of Jackie. Whether she was a victim of some kind of sexual assault that she exaggerated, or was just a liar, she didn’t give the magazine enough to go on. Beyond confirming that the university had received a report of her allegation, Rolling Stone didn’t take any of the steps it could have taken to investigate her story.
You investigate a rape survivor’s story not just out of suspicion (but journalists should always be suspicious), but to bolster her story and yours. Rape accusers will be viciously attacked (I saw that happen in a case where the defendant eventually plead guilty). Even if you believe a story, you need to investigate it to confirm your belief and to strengthen the story.
Other responses to the Columbia report:
Jay Rosen‘s analysis of the report is far more detailed than mine.
So is Erik Wemple’s.
Ben Mullin of Poynter rounded up journalists’ reactions to the report.
My earlier post with advice on interviewing rape survivors and verifying their stories.
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