Columbia Journalism Review Investigation Calls Rolling Stone UVA Rape Story “A Failure That Was Avoidable”

The Columbia Journalism Review has completed their investigation into Rolling Stone’s reporting and editorial practices in their story about a gang rape that allegedly occurred at the University of Virginia, and has concluded that the story — which Rolling Stone has officially retracted — is one of “journalistic failure that was avoidable.” These failures, according to CJR:

…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.

CJR found that both the story’s writer, Serena Erdely, and the editors and fact-checkers at Rolling Stone essentially blamed their various errors in judgement on being “too deferential” to Jackie so as to not revictimize her — or scare her away from participating all together. However:

…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.

The entire report, which is published both on CJR’s website and on RollingStone.com (a portion will also be published in an upcoming issue of the magazine), is deeply upsetting but an incredibly important read, in that it offers something very valuable beyond just a detailed recounting of RS’s mistakes: suggestions for how reporting on such sensitive issues should be handled going forward. It is this aspect of the report that I truly hope gets the most attention, as the bell cannot be unrung, and the long-term impact of Rolling Stone’s fuck up on rape victims is going to make reporting on rape even more difficult for journalists. [CJR]