Rolling Stone magazine just plain got it wrong.
That’s the conclusion of the massive (and massively long) piece penned by three officials at Columbia University journalism school, a report that details the fact that the story of a gang rape of a woman named “Jackie” at the University of Virginia was, in fact, simply not right.
So, that’s bad enough. What’s worse is that the errors made by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the article’s author, and the rest of the Rolling Stone editorial chain were entirely avoidable and encompassed the sort of basic reporting that every student in journalism school should know. Here’s the Columbia trio on what happened:
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.
Pretty damning stuff, right? Yes. And yet, Rolling Stone has apparently decided that this whole episode was just a blip on the radar and not at all the sort of thing that Erdely, her editor or anyone else should lose their job(s) for. “Sabrina’s done great work for us over the years and we expect that to continue,” Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana told The Washington Post via e-mail.
I am not one to call for other reporters’ heads when mistakes are made, as I have made mistakes before and had my head called for. But there are mistakes and then there are MISTAKES. A poorly chosen tweet or, in my case, a poorly conceived and unfunny parody, is one thing. Totally misreporting allegations of a gang rape in a hugely high-profile magazine story is another. One is poor judgement, often in the world of Twitter expressed (and regretted) in a millisecond. What Erdely did is journalistic malpractice, failing to do the basic blocking and tackling of reporting because, frankly, the story she had was just too good to check.
Credibility and its less-often-mentioned-but-no-less-important cousin accountability are all that any journalist has in this business. The practice of journalism broadly imagined is based on lots and lots of individual reporters’ credibility that eventually adds up to a reason why we should be trusted to tell you what you want and, more important, need to know.
That’s why what Erdely did — and the stunning lack of accountability from Rolling Stone — is so problematic for all of us who have dedicated our lives to journalism. Getting the story wrong — and in such a major way — obviously erodes our collective credibility. Failing to hold Erdely — or ANYONE — accountable for doing their jobs very poorly is even worse. It suggests that not only did journalism swing and miss but we are acting like we are still at the plate and nothing has happened.
Is it any wonder that trust in journalism is down there near Congress levels?
I’ve always been an ardent defender of journalism from those who insist that we’ve blown our chance at once again being the authoritative and objective force in society we once were. My argument has always been that, yes, there are a few bad apples, but most people are trying to do their jobs the best way they know how — honestly and fairly. I still believe that. But, failures like this one by Erdely and Rolling Stone make it much harder for me to make that case even to myself.
Society needs a Fourth Estate that it may not always agree with but that it believes is committed to getting it right and, when it doesn’t, taking appropriate action. Rolling Stone did neither of those things with this story. And that’s a shame for the rest of us.