Columbia School Journalism dean Steve Coll writes the autopsy of Rolling Stone's journalistic credibility as last November's disaster of a sexual assault story has now officially been retracted. Coll's 12,000 word deconstruction is longer than the original article by about a third and is absolutely brutal to the magazine, the Columbia J-school author, and her editors.
The collapse of "A Rape on Campus" does not involve the kinds of fabrication by reporters that have occurred in some other infamous cases of journalistic meltdown. In 2003, the New York Times reporter Jayson Blair resigned after editors concluded that he had invented stories from whole cloth. In February, NBC News suspended anchor Brian Williams after he admitted that he told tall tales about his wartime reporting in Iraq. There is no evidence in Erdely's materials or from interviews with her subjects that she invented facts; the problem was that she relied on what Jackie told her without vetting its accuracy.
"It's been an extraordinarily painful and humbling experience," Woods said. "I've learned that even the most trusted and experienced people – including, and maybe especially, myself – can make grave errors in judgment."
Yet Rolling Stone's senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story's failure does not require them to change their editorial systems. "It's not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don't think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things," Dana said. "We just have to do what we've always done and just make sure we don't make this mistake again." Coco McPherson, the fact-checking chief, said, "I one hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter."
Yet better and clearer policies about reporting practices, pseudonyms and attribution might well have prevented the magazine's errors. The checking department should have been more assertive about questioning editorial decisions that the story's checker justifiably doubted. Dana said he was not told of reporting holes like the failure to contact the three friends or the decision to use misleading attributions to obscure that fact.
For his part, Coll does provide a fair number of things that should immediately be improved by the magazine, and for journalists covering sexual assault in any capacity. Whether or not anyone listens is the key, but the bottom line is I would not expect to see anything resembling a hard-hitting expose' on college sexual assault and rape anytime soon, and the damage done by Rolling Stone here plays right into the idiotic right-wing myth that sexual assault simply doesn't happen on campus.
People, not just women, will be hurt and will not report assault because of this article and the fallout from it. Period.
And that's Rolling Stone's biggest shame.
Were we as interested in flaying the malefactors behind journalistic malpractice when FOX or the Wall Street Journal commits it, daily.