RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Rolling Stone magazine has now retracted what appeared to be a shocking expose about a gang rape at the University of Virginia at a fraternity. An investigation commissioned by the magazine to detail what went wrong was released last night, and it offers a clear answer. Everything went wrong. The report by two deans at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism finds every journalist who touched the piece shares blame. NPR's David Folkenflik has the first broadcast interviews with the report's authors and Rolling Stone's top editor.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Steve Coll is dean of the Columbia Journalism school. He co-wrote the 12,000-word report, and his words, though carefully chosen, are damning.
STEVE COLL: It was a systematic failing, and it involved basically every level of Rolling Stone's newsroom - the reporter and the editor on the front lines, but also policies and supervision failed.
FOLKENFLIK: Coll and his colleague, Sheila Coronel, concluded the magazine failed to take rudimentary steps required for fairness and for accuracy. The report also faulted Rolling Stone for failing to provide the fraternity and the university with enough information to offer adequately informed responses.
COLL: The thing that most struck us was how avoidable it was and how there were several paths not taken, paths that you would associate with basic tradecraft and any one of which might have caused Rolling Stone to turn around and go the other way.
FOLKENFLIK: It's worth recalling the media frenzy touched off last November by the piece by Sabrina Rubin Erdely called "A Rape On Campus." Its centerpiece was a cinematic account of a young student's gang rape at a fraternity party at the University of Virginia. The story propelled national debate over how well colleges handle the allegations of sexual assault at a time of increasing federal scrutiny.
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HANNA ROSIN: What made you believe that her story was true?
FOLKENFLIK: That's Hanna Rosin on a Slate podcast interviewing Erdely in late November. Erdely said she found the woman she identified only as Jackie to be very credible.
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SABRINA RUBIN ERDELY: You know, I put her story through the ringer to the extent that I could. I spoke to, you know, virtually all of her friends to find out what she had told them at various points.
ROSIN: And those matched? Like, the friends she spoke to at the time said, yes, she had bruises from going through the glass table or whatever?
ERDELY: Well, I just - I found it to be very consistent. And, you know, the degree of her trauma - like, there's no doubt in my mind that something happened to her that night.
FOLKENFLIK: As Erdely conceded in that interview, she told the story from Jackie's point of view. But that part where Erdely said she checked with virtually all of Jackie's friends, that turned out not to be true. Rolling Stone had not contacted the three friends Jackie said she confided in, two of whom came off very badly in the piece. Erdely and her editors decided to protect Jackie's emotional fragility by not interviewing them. Those friends would later offer very different accounts. Here's what Will Dana, managing editor of Rolling Stone, has to say now.
WILL DANA: Decisions that we made about this story are very different than decisions we make about pretty much every other story that we've done in all the years that I've been here, you know, out of what seemed like deference to someone who had been a victim of a terrible trauma.
FOLKENFLIK: Dana says he didn't anticipate the whirlwind response to the magazine's story when it was published or his sickening feeling when it started to collapse.
DANA: We actually would've protected this girl much better by reporting on her story the same way we'd report on anything else because if we had, you know, sort of pulled these things a little harder, done more to verify things that she was saying, I think, you know, we would've saved her a lot of grief and ourselves.
FOLKENFLIK: Rolling Stone had assigned false names to Jackie's friends in the piece and to her alleged attacker. But it did not reveal that it had not so much as identified any of them, nor did it tell readers that the narration of the rape and Jackie's exchanges with those friends were based solely on her account. In early December, The Washington Post published a piece contradicting pivotal elements of the article, and Rolling Stone started to back away from it. Columbia Journalism dean, Steve Coll.
COLL: It's hard to avoid the conclusion that this was just a convenient way to essentially paper over the gap that they had allowed to develop in their own reporting and not make themselves accountable for it with readers.
FOLKENFLIK: Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana apologized for the story last night and officially withdrew it. He says he's issued clearer guidelines for what constitutes good reporting and editing. But he praised his team as good journalists and said there will be no punishments of Erdely, her editor Sean Woods, the fact checkers nor anyone else. Dana says he doesn't want this fatally compromised article to be the work that defines them. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.
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