Journalism Review

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From a report published by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism on the failings of Rolling Stone's November 2014 story "A Rape on Campus," by Sabrina Rubin Erdely. Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana asked Steve Coll, the journalism-­school dean, to "investigate any lapses in reporting, editing and fact­-checking behind the story," which centered on a University of Virginia student's alleged rape by a group of fellow students in a fraternity house.

The particulars of Rolling Stone’s failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating­-manual­-level of detail.

As at other once­-robust print magazines and newspapers, Rolling Stone’s editorial staff has shrunk in recent years as print advertising revenue has fallen and shifted online. The magazine’s full-­time editorial ranks, not including art or photo staff, have contracted by about 25 percent since 2008. Yet Rolling Stone continues to invest in professional fact­-checkers and to fund time-­consuming investigations like Erdely’s. The magazine’s records and interviews with participants show that the failure of “A Rape on Campus” was not due to a lack of resources.

The problem was methodology, compounded by an environment where several journalists with decades of collective experience failed to surface and debate problems about their reporting or to heed the questions they did receive from a fact-­checking colleague.

Erdely and her editors had hoped their investigation would sound an alarm about campus sexual assault and would challenge Virginia and other universities to do better. Instead, the magazine’s failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations. (Social scientists analyzing crime records report that the rate of false rape allegations is 2 to 8 percent.) At the University of Virginia, “It’s going to be more difficult now to engage some people ... because they have a preconceived notion that women lie about sexual assault,” said Alex Pinkleton, a UVA student and rape survivor who was one of Erdely’s sources.

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