Rolling Stone, Jackie, and What Went Wrong

[Content Note: Sexual assault.]

Yesterday, the Columbia Journalism Review published a comprehensive report on the failures of Rolling Stone's story on the reported gang rape of a University of Virginia student known as Jackie. It is a thorough and damning document, and I highly recommend taking the time to read the report in its entirety.

Despite the many grievous errors in the reporting process, Rolling Stone continues to defend its process, and the magazine's publisher, Jann Wenner, was quoted in the New York Times blaming the entire clusterfuck on Jackie:
In an interview discussing Columbia's findings, Jann S. Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone, acknowledged the piece's flaws but said that it represented an isolated and unusual episode and that Ms. Erdely would continue to write for the magazine. The problems with the article started with its source, Mr. Wenner said. He described her as "a really expert fabulist storyteller" who managed to manipulate the magazine's journalism process. When asked to clarify, he said that he was not trying to blame Jackie, "but obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep."
Leaving aside that this is gross victim-blaming, if one young woman is able to fundamentally undermine a journalistic process all on her own by being a manipulative storyteller, that doesn't suggest a very reliable process, Mr. Wenner.

Naturally, the takeaway from this will be (again) that Jackie is a liar, but the Columbia Journalism Review does not make that conclusion, just as investigating police did not. CJR reports that there were discrepancies in Jackie's story, that she was sometimes evasive, that she was scared, and that she nonetheless seemed credible to Rolling Stone until she didn't anymore.

And the report makes abundantly clear that she didn't seem credible anymore only after questions were raised about the story that have everything to do with failures in Rolling Stone's reporting process.

Which isn't really about her credibility at all, but theirs.

An argument could be made that Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely and her editors should have questioned Jackie's credibility—or at least her preparedness to move ahead as the center of such a big story on campus rape—but according to them, they didn't. Not until after publication. When it's pretty obvious they decided that throwing Jackie under the bus was a better strategy than holding themselves accountable for any reporting, editing, or fact-checking failures.

What silencing of doubts there may have been pre-publication, to which no one is admitting, may be attributable to the fact that Erdely—and the rest of the Rolling Stone team—were keen to use as the centerpiece of their story the most egregious, heinous example of campus rape they could find, which is something about which I've written before: Jackie was used "by someone who decided to take a pass on stories that weren't big enough; take a pass on survivors who weren't hurt badly enough. But Jackie's story was a 'blockbuster,' a 'massive scoop,' an 'intense story...sensational.'"

Occasionally, reporters working on stories about sexual violence have reached out to me seeking advice for how to write about the subject. And the advice I offer tends to fall into three general categories:

1. How to conduct a sensitive interview with a survivor that doesn't make them feel unsafe and doesn't push them.

2. Center always that you're talking to a person. Even if reporters want one survivor's individual case to be representative of a larger issue of the rape culture (e.g. campus rape), they have to remember their subject is a person and hir lived experience, not their assault.

3. If they have any doubts at all, if they can't stand behind the survivor 100%, don't use them as a source. Not just because if questions arise post-publication, that can make life harder for other victims and advocates (although that, too), but because it's not fair to a survivor to compromise their trust and safety by putting their story out into the world if you're not going to have their backs.

The CJR report addresses the importance of this pact between survivor and reporter, too:
Problems arise when the terms of the compact between survivor and journalist are not spelled out. Kristen Lombardi, who spent a year and a half reporting the Center for Public Integrity's series on campus sexual assault, said she made it explicit to the women she interviewed that the reporting process required her to obtain documents, collect evidence and talk to as many people involved in the case as possible, including the accused. She prefaced her interviews by assuring the women that she believed in them but that it was in their best interest to make sure there were no questions about the veracity of their accounts. She also allowed victims some control, including determining the time, place and pace of their interviews.

If a woman was not ready for such a process, Lombardi said, she was prepared to walk away.
This is the responsibility of anyone who agrees to tell a survivor's story: To do everything in one's power to make sure that survivor is protected from inevitable blowback. And, if you can't do that, be prepared to walk away.

Clearly, Erdely was not prepared to walk away. To the contrary, Jackie was continually pursued even when she would cease communication for weeks at a time. Her story was too "explosive" to walk away from.

Erdely and Rolling Stone were not centering Jackie as their subject, but her description of her assault.
Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show "what it's like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there's this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture."
Any campus sexual assault case would have been "emblematic" of the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses. Jackie's case was chosen because it was worse ("sensational" and a "massive scoop") than the typical case. Because Rolling Stone was more concerned about a "blockbuster" story than a verifiable one told by a survivor behind whom they were willing to put their unyielding support.

Lots went wrong with their journalistic process, but that was only after lots went wrong with their decency process.

That the best they've got in response is "Jackie manipulated us" is a good indication they've got no intention of scrutinizing either process, to make sure this sort of colossal failure does not happen again.

Which should concern anyone who genuinely cares about ending sexual assault.

I will leave you with this: For three years, long before Jackie's story was even published in Rolling Stone, the University of Virginia has been under federal investigation for Title IX violations specifically related to sexual violence. Three years. The investigation is open and ongoing.

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