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'Rolling Stone' Report Reveals 'Systemic Failing' Behind Campus Rape Story

Apr 5, 2015
Originally published on April 5, 2015 7:23 pm
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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

A report has just been issued tonight that identified a series of failures by Rolling Stone Magazine in the reporting and editing of a story about campus rape at the University of Virginia. The story was built around a riveting narrative of a woman at a fraternity party who was gang raped. But that narrative proved to not be true, and Rolling Stone officially retracted the story tonight. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has read the report from Columbia University's Journalism School about what went wrong and has interviewed its authors and the managing editor of Rolling Stone. He joins us from New York City. Hi, David.

FOLKENFLIK: Hey, Arun.

RATH: So tell us about this report. What were the major findings?

FOLKENFLIK: Steve Coll and Sheila Coronel did the report, and they found a series of major errors. They found systemic errors, as you said, tied primarily to a decision to protect the woman that they saw as a rape survivor and a campus whistleblower about the university's poor response to her allegations. The reporter and the editors failed to identify or contact the women's friends to verify her account. Rolling Stone failed to give fraternity or university officials enough details to confirm or dispute her accounts. And they gave pseudonyms for people they hadn't identified or contacted or interviewed. Additional reporting would, it turns out, have led to denials, a disproof and a very, very different story, if anything had been published at all.

RATH: David, does the report assign any blame for all the errors?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it says the fault needs to be shared widely. It needs to be, certainly, assigned to the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who I interviewed back in early December. But they say others need to take equal blame - the editor on the report, the managing editor, Will Dana, who oversaw the report, knowing that it would be an important one and the fact checker involved, for accepting certain decisions along the way. The idea of assigning pseudonyms, for example, the Columbia dean said allowed them to paper over these gaps in fact that they hadn't tried to contact people who were real people and who had very different versions of what might have happened.

RATH: So what has Rolling Stone's response been? Or do you expect there to be more developments this week?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, nobody's been fired so far. Will Dana, the managing editor of Rolling Stone, told me he doesn't want this story to be the final one for anyone involved. They all have done fine journalism in the past. He said this story, because of the desire to protect the woman they called only Jackie in the story, led to some very unusual and, in retrospect, obviously wrong decisions.

Erdely told me in early December she had been shopping for a story to tell about campus rape and particularly about UVA, and that Jackie seemed fragile, but that her story was evocative and represented a greater truth. Dana also says look, in realizing things had gone wrong, even before tonight's report was released, he had issued specific set guidelines about best practices for how things should have been done. And indeed, the Columbia deans say that that was something that did not seem to be front and center during this reporting process. But other than that, it's not clear what other steps will be taken.

RATH: Does the report explain what led to this series of failures - like, you know, basically why this happened?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, beyond protecting Jackie, the woman who said that she was the victim of this gang rape, the report found that the reporter, Sabrina Erdely, and the editors got caught up in an ecosystem of activists and people supporting Jackie, that they fundamentally believed what they were being told, that they felt somehow as a result they didn't need to do further reporting. And that's fundamentally, from my sense and certainly the Columbia dean's sense, not a journalistic response.

The report interviewed other experienced reporters who have dealt with rape to say they have to tell rape accusers and survivors that their assailants will be interviewed - will be given a chance to counter their version of events, and that if those victims and accusers aren't ready to say yes to that, they're not ready to be reported on. That was a step that Rolling Stone failed to take - one of many that would have prevented it from reaching this rather catastrophic version of events.

RATH: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik in New York. He'll have the first broadcast interviews with the authors of the Columbia University report and Rolling Stone's Will Dana tomorrow on Morning Edition. Thanks, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.