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How Rolling Stone got the UVA sexual assault story so wrong

A new report scrutinizes the many layers of error uncovered in a Rolling Stone article about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia. Gwen Ifill talks to Steve Coll of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism about failures by the reporter and editors to verify the account. Alison Kiss of the Clery Center for Security on Campus discusses how it may affect other victims.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    A new report commissioned by Rolling Stone and conducted by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism describes in detail the life and death of a now discredited account of a brutal gang rape at the University of Virginia.

    The article drew nationwide attention, but almost immediately collapsed under the weight of scrutiny after police, university officials and other journalists discovered inconsistencies in the story told by its protagonist, a student identified only as Jackie.

    The new report concludes: "Reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely and her editors failed to verify her story with other sources. The magazine used pseudonyms rather than confront the alleged attackers. And they ignored fact-checkers' warnings that the alleged victim was the article's only source for key details."

    Steve Coll is dean of the Columbia Journalism School, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist himself, and he headed up the outside investigation.

    Steve Coll, thanks for joining us.

    For six months, this story was reported, four months in your investigation. How did this happen?

    STEVE COLL, Dean, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism: Well, it was a collective failure and an avoidable failure.

    You had a reporter who got caught up in subject matter, had worked very hard, but didn't do some of the basic checking of derogatory information with subjects, didn't do some of the basic provision of details to subjects that would have generated information that probably would have led her to turn in another direction.

    Then her editor failed to insist that she close these reporting gaps. The editor allowed into the story misleading attributions that withheld from readers important information about what was and what wasn't known to Rolling Stone.

    And, then, finally the editor's editor, the supervising editor of the magazine, though he read the drafts, though he had some conversations about the holes in the story, didn't intervene. And while, as you point out, the fact-checker did raise a couple of important questions, the checking department as a whole was either overridden or didn't forcefully intervene to insist that some of these holes be addressed.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Steve, last November, we interviewed Sabrina Rubin Erdely here on the NewsHour right after this article came out and just before the holes began to appear in it.

    And I want to play a couple of things she had to say which are now supported by some of your findings. The first is a discussion of confirmation bias. And that's that she entered into the story with a story to tell and found someone to tell it.

    Let's listen to the way she described it in her own words.

  • SABRINA RUBIN ERDELY, Rolling Stone:

    Part of the reason why I chose University of Virginia is because I felt that it was really representative of what was going on at campuses across the country.

    When I spoke to experts, they told me that this — that, really, the scary truth is that, if you dig deep enough really in any campus, this is probably what you will find, that what happened at the University of Virginia is probably not the exception. It's probably, this is the norm.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Taken together with the fact that she relied so heavily on a single source, that is to say, Jackie, this — the woman who was allegedly attacked, who told her story about her friends and what her friend said the night of the attack, let's still to Sabrina Rubin Erdely, again, her description of how that unfolded.

  • SABRINA RUBIN ERDELY:

    That was an incredibly common and very disturbing thing that emerged from this article, was that when Jackie confided in her friends, they dismissed it, they laughed it off, they told her to brush it off and get over it. Some of them called her a baby for wallowing in it. They had asked her why she was still crying about it.

    And that was incredibly common among rape survivors at the University of Virginia and elsewhere, that these women are sort of shamed and blamed and they're told to just shake it off and get back to the party culture.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    As far as we know, none of this happened, at least this last part about what her friends did and how they reacted.

    And in addition to that, you could see that the reporter was making the larger case, that she was trying to make with other universities. This, combined, was this a firing offense?

  • STEVE COLL:

    Well, look, we didn't find the kind of dishonesty, inventing facts, lying to colleagues about who you called and what reporting you did, plagiarism, that I'm sure you know are common automatic firing offenses in newsrooms or certainly offenses that generate severe sanctions.

    This was a pattern, a failure that involved the writer for sure, but also her editors, and the policies at Rolling Stone which were inadequate for the complexity of the story she was working on.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And yet nobody was fired, I should just say.

  • STEVE COLL:

    Nobody was fired, so far as I'm aware of. Rolling Stone announced that everyone would keep their jobs.

    I think that, you know, that the wider subject that you highlighted with those clips is important. It is this habit in journalism of reporters assuming they know what the story is and then looking for a case to illustrate their assumptions. That can be a very dangerous endeavor. It can sometimes be the basis for successful narrative journalism, if the reporter goes in with an open mind and really discovers on the reporting trail what the truth of the matter is.

    But, in other cases, here is certainly a cautionary tale of someone coming in with assumptions that are very deeply embedded. You can hear them in the statements that she made to you when the story came out, and then really closes her ears to facts that contradict the assumptions she already holds.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Isn't…

  • STEVE COLL:

    That's a — I was just going to say, that's — as you have referred to this phenomenon of confirmation bias, it's a well-established part of social science that this is our human condition. We like to filter out facts that aren't aligned with our preexisting assumptions.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But isn't that what editors and fact-checkers are for, to save you from those kinds of biases?

  • STEVE COLL:

    Absolutely right. And it's hard.

    Anyone who has been around investigative reporters know that strong investigative reporters sometimes get off track. They get tangled up in their subjects. They get emotive about the wrongdoing that they think that they're exposing.

    And that's exactly why you have partnerships between reporters and editors, because it's the editor who is supposed to provide the break, the perspective, to provide the empirical sense that, oh, we're not done yet. We need you to go back down. We need you to talk to more people. It's not acceptable for us to go to print without having contacted the three friends that you're quoting on Jackie's account, but without knowing whether they would sign up for the version of this terribly unflattering speech that you have attributed to them.

    These are the basic things that reporters and editors do together. We found that there was plenty of failure on both sides of that partnership in this case. But you're certainly right that an editor is an essential part of an equation like this.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    One final question. Does the victim, the source herself hold any responsibility for this?

  • STEVE COLL:

    Not in my judgment, when you consider it as a matter of journalism, which was our charge. She was 17 years old when she enrolled at a freshman.

    She didn't enlist Rolling Stone to be written about. Whatever her motivations, which are not really known to us — she didn't speak to us — she is not at fault for a failure of journalism. That is about the methodology and the practice that Rolling Stone undertook in this case.

    And, by the way, Rolling Stone and the writer sometimes sheltered under the defense that they had only been too sensitive to Jackie's position. And it was an important part of our report to say, no, we don't think so. We think that there were many reporting trails they could have followed without any effect on Jackie, and certainly without any request by Jackie that they refrain, that would have changed the outcome.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, thank you very much.

  • STEVE COLL:

    Thank you, Gwen.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Advocates for sexual assault victims are also worried that the Rolling Stone story will damage their cause.

    Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, joins me now.

    Alison Kiss, how much damage did this story do?

    ALISON KISS, Executive Director, Clery Center for Security on Campus: I think it may set us backwards a little bit.

    It's been — there's been quite a bit of attention on campus sexual assault over the past two years, and people have been coming at this from multiple directions, student activists, administrators on campus, really putting time and effort into creating collaborative responses.

    And I think that this story took — made us take a few steps back.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And, actually, a lot of the people said right at the time this proves that people like you were trying to reach too far to create a drama that doesn't really exist, a problem that is not as widespread as advocates say.

  • ALISON KISS:

    You know, that's one of our fears in this.

    I think that, when you take a single narrative and, as Steve mentioned, there were multiple layers of errors here, and the idea was the folks at Rolling Stone said they cared too much about Jackie, when, in fact, I think their process showed that there was very little care for Jackie and other victims and survivors.

    So here you have a situation where they're almost adding to the perception that this doesn't happen, because that perception is very real. There are people out there who think sexual assault doesn't happen on college and university campuses. And so when they see a story like that, it just feel them with an anecdotal.

    It's certainly not based in statistics, but when they hear something like this — and it's getting quite a bit of attention — then they might grab on to that and say, this is not happening on our campus. And we know it is.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The fraternity involved is suing. They're saying this was reckless and that they were damaged.

    The governor of Virginia has said that this was a travesty. That's not his word, my word. And now we wonder whether the University of Virginia or other universities are going to take shelter as well under this and back away from their efforts. What is your sense of that?

  • ALISON KISS:

    My sense is, this story caused quite a bit of harm. I think the journalistic efforts failed. They were irresponsible.

    It basically, as I said, put — caused harm not only to Jackie and other survivors, but other people who were potentially defamed in the story. So I think it shows that we need to approach this. We train colleges and universities daily on approaching sexual assault with a balanced approach, and I would encourage folks within the media who are reporting on this as well to also take that balanced approach.

    So, if you're hearing multiple sides, you have to do the background. It's really what you owe to the subject of your story.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Will victims be less likely to report assault? Reporting assault is often part of the problem here at the root of this, as much as the assault themselves.

  • ALISON KISS:

    I think, whenever you have a story that circles around false reporting in some capacity, that it may minimize the crime of sexual violence and sexual assault, and people may be less likely to come forward and report an assault.

    We're talking about the most under-reported crime on college and university campuses and across the board. We know that there are only about 2 to 10 percent of reports are false reports. But we do know they're scrutinized. So, certainly, when there's attention on a potential false report — now, I think that there was — the chief of place in Virginia said that they do believe something happened to Jackie.

    I think that what trauma tells us, something most likely did happen to Jackie. But, again, when the narrative is swirling — you know, dangerously swirling around false reporting, I think it may minimize people coming forward. I hope that's not the case, but it's certainly an option.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Alison, to what extent does the trauma itself sometimes make it difficult to get the story straight, either for the journalists or even for the victim?

  • ALISON KISS:

    When you talk about trauma and how it affects the victim, it's going to be different with every person.

    So it's really important to understand that certain facts or certain details may not come across correctly. It could be an incorrect date or time. But, then again, there could be certain facts that the victim has right down to every little — I mean, could almost tell you cracks in the ceiling and what type of shape they're making.

    So, it's important, when reporting on these stories, that you don't take an advocacy role. I think a journalist has to take a balanced approach. But I think it's important to know the way that trauma can affect someone when they're recounting a violent attack.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, and as Steve Coll just mentioned, she is no longer cooperating — she herself is not pressing her case anymore, either with the police or with the Columbia journalism folks.

    So what good, if any, can come of this, from your point of view, from your perspective?

  • ALISON KISS:

    I think it's an opportunity for journalists to really learn how to work with survivors of sexual violence.

    I think there are many who do this really well. So they're very up front when working with a survivor and explaining to them the process, and letting them know what the process is going to be throughout the story, not shielding them.

    And it sounds like, in this case, there was a — quote, unquote — "care for Jackie," but there actually wasn't care for Jackie. There wasn't really open and — honesty about what Jackie needed and what they needed to do to strengthen the story, quite frankly.

    So, again, I think it's an opportunity for journalists to really understand kind of how to take a trauma-informed approach to understanding what a survivor goes through, and then also taking a balanced approach to reporting the story.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Alison Kiss of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, thank you very much.

  • ALISON KISS:

    Thank you.

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