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. The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all. The published story glossed over the gaps in the magazine’s reporting by using pseudonyms and by failing to state where important information had come from.
Yet, just as they did when the account was first challenged, Rolling Stone, which is neither firing anyone nor adjusting any of their policies, is still blaming Jackie for their own failures. Rolling Stone‘s publisher, Jann S. Wenner, told the New York Times that she was “a really expert fabulist storyteller” who managed to manipulate the magazine’s journalism process. In interviews with the Columbia investigators, the magazine’s staff consistently attributes their missteps to their desire to “accommodate” a traumatized rape survivor. “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” the article’s editor, Sean Woods, told Columbia. “We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”
This is bullshit for a couple reasons. As I wrote in my piece on the debacle back in December, the fact-checking process is not a matter of being “tougher” on a rape survivor — it’s about being able to stand by the account if it’s questioned. By not doing their journalistic due diligence to ensure they could, the magazine absolutely positively did Jackie an unforgivable “disservice.” Even more importantly, Columbia explicitly rejected this excuse for Rolling Stone‘s failures:
“The explanation that Rolling Stone failed because it deferred to a victim cannot adequately account for what went wrong. 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.”
As Jay Rosen notes, Columbia’s report is focused more on how the mess could have been avoided (answer: “routine journalistic practice”), not what motivated Rolling Stone‘s mistakes, but there’s lots of evidence that it it was their attachment to using Jackie’s story as “a single, emblematic college rape case” that’s to blame. It seems they didn’t follow many threads for fear of losing Jackie as a source. For example, they didn’t reach out to any of the friends quoted — even though Jackie never requested that they not do that — because writer Sarah Erdely, who was concerned that Jackie’s “cooperation remained tentative,” worried that if “I work round Jackie, am I going to drive her from the process?” Likewise, though Rolling Stone claimed they’d struck some sort of “agreement” with Jackie not to contact the student she accused, in fact, she never demanded that they not verify his identity independently; Rolling Stone simply made the decision to stop trying when Jackie appeared to stop cooperating as the deadline to go to press drew nearer.
There is simply no reason a rape survivor source’s cooperation should be that tentative. Ever. The Columbia report concludes with some solid advice for reporting on sexual assault, citing Kristen Lombardi’s process in the Center for Public Integrity’s series on campus sexual assault. “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.”
As Melissa McEwan writes, “This is the responsibility of anyone who agrees to tell a survivor’s story: To do everything in one’s power to make sure that survivor is protected from inevitable blowback. And, if you can’t do that, be prepared to walk away.” That — and not a belief in a false choice between “sensitivity” to rape survivors and good journalism — should be the main lesson we take away from this disaster.