Q and A

What was the single point of failure at Rolling Stone? The authors of Columbia’s investigative report answer that and more

April 5, 2015

Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll and Dean of Academic Affairs Sheila Coronel sat down for an interview with Columbia Journalism Review Editor Liz Spayd to discuss the school’s report on Rolling Stone’s story of a campus rape.


Sheila Coronel (left) and Steve Coll

The report you produced for Rolling Stone magazine reads like a blunt condemnation of individual performances, sloppy newsroom practices and poor journalistic judgments made all along the way. Was there a single point of failure in the process that rises above the others?

Steve Coll: Yes I think so. I think it’s the way they handled the three friends of Jackie (the alleged victim) who were present on the night she said she was attacked. And they heard Jackie’s story early on. The reporter did not make an effort, an independent effort, to identify those three people. And yet, by her first draft, we see that she always intended to write in a derogatory way about them. Then the editor, in receipt of that anecdote which attributed dialogue to the three, that was quite unflattering, not only accepted a reporting trail that had failed to identify and hear from these three, but also made choices about attribution that hid from readers the fact that they got this speech from Jackie, not from any of the three. In fact they didn’t even know their last names. And the reason it’s a single point of failure involves our finding that all this was avoidable through routine practices of journalistic verification. And what a reader of the story wouldn’t have known—or even someone who followed The Washington Post coverage—the Post was the first to find these three and start to document their side of the experience—was that Jackie had told the reporter a story about her recent encounters with one of these three, and if the reporter had found them, had reached out to them, even just for the purposes of checking, she would have heard a disturbing contradiction of what Jackie had told her. Essentially one of the three would have said she’d made up a story just a week ago. And I think any professional reporter hearing a contradiction that bald about a core source would be shaken and would turn around and go in another direction. So it’s a single point of failure with multiple layers, I suppose.

Sheila Coronel: I think if you think of it in terms of the one avoidable and easily correctable error, that’s probably it. But if you think of severity in the sense of what was the most serious mistake they made, I think overall it was putting the story, the burden of the story, on just one source and not attempting to verify various aspects of that story. But certainly not contacting the three friends who saw Jackie the night she said she was attacked was the single avoidable mistake. It was the most fundamental error.

I guess I’m wondering, then, how a reporter could make such a fundamental error. It’s a truism of journalism that a story looks differently depending on where you stand. And for the reporter, Sabrina Erdely, not to have made a more aggressive effort to track down Jackie’s friends or someone who was at the party, seems unfathomable. Do you guys have a theory of the case about what was going on in the reporter’s head?

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Coll: Well, what she told us was that she felt that it was important to stay close to Jackie throughout the reporting and to take no steps that would lead Jackie to believe that she was betraying their trust or their relationship by going around her. Now, why was that important? When we asked that question she said it was because she feared Jackie would withdraw from cooperation on the story. We asked her specifically, “Had you made some kind of a source arrangement with Jackie that required you ethically, had you entered into an ethical obligation, not to undertake this kind of independent checking.” She said, “No, it wasn’t an obligation, but I was worried that if I worked around her I would lose her participation in the story.” So that’s what she said.

Now what would you conclude from that? It was that she, the reporter, had entangled herself in this story in a way that was unsound. That you have to be able to walk away from a subject like that if you feel that you can’t do your job for one reason or another. And she also, as the report I think shows, did independently attempt to verify some things. So it wasn’t as if she never tried to work around Jackie. It wasn’t as if she was never prepared to take the risk of jeopardising Jackie’s cooperation by appearing to doubt the story. But Erdely’s behavior wasn’t consistent in that way. So sometimes she did try to independently look for things, but then she’d stop. And other times she told us that she hadn’t looked for things because she was afraid that Jackie would find out and withdraw from the story.

But when a reporter gets so committed to their narrative, isn’t that where an editor steps in?

Coronel: Ideally editors should step in. But I think in this case both editors who supervised Erdely also believed in Jackie’s story. They thought of her as a whistleblower. Someone who had taken great risks to be able to tell the story and was still at risk if her identity and the identity of her attackers were going to be revealed, and so they thought they were protecting her. And in the end they realised that by trying to protect her they made her even more vulnerable.

Coll: But again, the editors, in the same way, they thought about these questions. It wasn’t as if they had a meeting and they said “OK, after careful review, we’re not going to try to find the three friends, and we’re just going to take the risk that Jackie’s version of the story is correct.” In fact, the editor recalls asking the reporter “Can’t you find the three friends?” And the reporter says, “I wish I’d been pushed harder to find the three friends. It occurred to me that someone was going to tell me to go do this.” So they were around the issue, they just didn’t follow through.

Can you talk about the notion of “confirmation bias,” this idea that we’re all instilled with beliefs about how the world works and it becomes hard for us to see the need to find alternative views. It’s a concept that I think can apply to so much in journalism.

Coronel: I see this a lot in my students. They have a theory of the case, or a theory of how this story went, or a narrative that they believe is plausible, and they try and report according to that theory rather than against it. So ideally you should be reporting both sides of the story. You should be trying to prove your theory or hypothesis, but also reporting against your hypothesis. In this case they interpreted a lot of information as proof that their story, or their view of the story, was correct. So, for example, when they said that Emily Renda provided congressional testimony, they took that to mean that the [University of Virginia] knew and that they didn’t do anything and they knew all the details of her case because they already had this preconceived notion about what Jackie was saying, the truth of her story, and what she had reported to the university. So I guess they, for the most part, by believing her, they didn’t try to look for additional information that would verify her story, and they interpreted information in the light of what they felt the story was.

Coll: What’s interesting about the science is, as I read it, as a non-scientist, is that it’s a feature of human behavior. It’s not just a challenge to the professional practice of journalism. So part of it is perceptual. Your brain almost involuntarily takes you away from contradictory facts, selects the facts that confirm your beliefs. But moreover, and I remember reading social science about this in respect to partisan cable news channels, it’s emotionally pleasing to hear facts that confirm your biases. And so your brain is drawn to the emotional experience of following the path that is aligned with your convictions. So you actually have to do something unpleasant to take yourself off that path. I don’t know how we survived as a species with this problem in our cognition but it must make us stronger communities or something.

Coronel: But isn’t it the argument that we survived precisely, as a species, because we’re able to make snap judgments based on a pattern of information when there is danger?

Coll: Could be.

Coronel: We’re able to process that information quickly and react to it quickly.

Coll: Very good. That could be it.

So I also wanted to ask about resources. In the case of Rolling Stone they, relative to much of the media landscape, are pretty rich with resources. They have the ability to have a multilayered editing system. Not just one editor, but an editor above that, and maybe one above that. And for big stories, they have a safety net of fact checking. In the reordered media landscape that we have now, that’s not often the case. And it just makes me wonder what you guys think about whether we’re apt to see more fiascos on the scale of the campus rape piece, as relatively young news organizations move into the practice of investigative journalism without the journalistic equipment they probably need.

Coronel: Rolling Stone had the resources. But does this mean that a news organization that doesn’t have the same resources, say a college paper, cannot then report adequately on college rape? I don’t think that’s what our report says. In fact, our report says there are ways of doing this properly, and it’s a matter of reporting procedures and reporting standards and reporting fundamentals. It’s reporting 101. It’s not a question of whether your news organization has several layers of editing or you have fact-checkers or you have all the time you need. I wouldn’t want that to be the takeaway of this report—that you can only do this kind of reporting if you’re The New York Times or Wall Street Journal or Bloomberg. I don’t think that’s what we want to say. I think we want to say is that there are time-honored reporting practices of verification and corroboration that should be followed regardless of the size of your news organization or the reporting resources available to you.

Coll: I do think that, as journalism becomes more deinstitutionalized, there is a question around, how younger or freelance reporters learn, at an operating manual level of detail, what those practices are. Even if you read them on the Society of Professional Journalists’ website, when you’re putting them into practice in the field when reporting on a complex story, especially early in a career, you need to talk about them with an experienced peer to say, “How should I handle this confidentiality agreement I just made with a source?” or “How can I release myself from the box I managed to put myself in?” These are not questions that are always easy to interpret on your own. So when there’s not as many large and stable newsrooms where that conversation is alive everyday, I think it’s a challenge to the profession to figure out how to offer that training, that resource to more independent journalists.

On the other hand, I certainly have learned, having made the transition from newspapers to magazines, that the depth of a magazine newsroom, including the fact-checking department, can be a false sedative. The good thing about being a young newspaper reporter is you’re self managing. You own your own mistakes. You’re moving fast, you may have an editor looking over your shoulder and kicking you in the shins if you haven’t made the call you should’ve made. But you have to self police, otherwise you’ll fail very visibly and quickly.

And at a magazine, I learned when I went there, it’s tempting to let the checking department sort it out, which is almost literally a quote that (Rolling Stone Managing Editor) Will Dana gave. But if you get in the habit of not sorting things out for yourself as a frontline reporter, you can actually get yourself into trouble. The point isn’t only that resources are not the question. It’s the policy. What are the expectations? Are people willing to challenge each other when they see a hole or they see something that just doesn’t look like the right judgement?

Coronel: I think also some of it is about standards—what is the reporting practice in the newsroom? In some newsrooms, it’s the practice to confront the other side of the story with detail and questions. And that’s regular practice—every journalist does that. That doesn’t seem to be the standard practice at Rolling Stone.

I think what we also saw here was that important decisions were made without much deliberation. They were made almost on the fly—”So, let’s use pseudonyms now, and then go back to that later.” There was not enough debating or discussion about what the repercussions of those decisions would be.

I notice that you make no recommendation about whether Rolling Stone should have retracted the piece, nor do you call for the removal of the writer or the editors involved. I wonder if you could explain why you decided to take that path.

Coll: Well they’re two different subjects. I think we acknowledged in the piece that they had effectively retracted Jackie’s narrative, and we expected that, after we completed our work, they would reconsider what else they wanted to do. And I think that will probably unfold.

On the question of what the owner of Rolling Stone should make of the accountability question with his own organization, we felt that this was beyond a fair judgement based on the information that we had because—and I’m sure this is true of Sheila in some ways too—I’ve spent the last 20 years in positions where I’ve either had or shared responsibility for holding people accountable for mistakes. And I certainly know that there are many circumstances in which those decisions require a full case file of information to make a good judgement. Someone hurling an opinion over the wall from outside, it’s not always constructive.

Beyond that, I’d say, certainly in the news organizations where I’ve worked, both in those roles and not in those roles, there are some actions by journalists that are firing offenses and should be. Dishonesty, lying to your boss, lying to your peers about what you did or who you called, or inventing facts.

Coronel: Plagiarism.

Coll: Plagiarism. Speaking only for myself and not for Sheila, if I had encountered evidence of that kind of conduct by anyone at Rolling Stone, if they had lied, if they had invented notes, if they had misled their colleagues or misrepresented themselves, then I would have been tempted to call for direct accountability. But that’s not the case here. This was a systematic and collective failure. But there is no evidence that anyone was dishonest in those ways. So that, to me, left it to Rolling Stone to judge.

Coronel: I also see this as a teaching case for us. The value of it is not so much to hold Rolling Stone accountable—one thing they wanted—but to us it’s more valuable as a teaching case for our students to learn what went wrong in this case and what would apply to their future careers.

You guys also say that the senior editors at Rolling Stone, after being presented with many of your findings, saw no errors that they felt were the result of systematic failures in their newsroom. I wonder if you were surprised by their reaction.

Coronel: Well, they sort of said that, but also said that it was institutional. Didn’t Will Dana say it was an individual error, a procedural error, and institutional error?

Coll: But we did quote them as saying that they didn’t see any reason to change their policies. They had also, in various forums, made public statements that sheltered them under the defense that they had failed only because they were too sensitive to Jackie’s position.

Coronel: I think their view of what went wrong is shifting over time.

Coll: We wanted to make clear that we didn’t believe the evidence supported their defense that they had failed only because they had been sensitive to Jackie’s position. Because that would have misled other journalists about what the real lesson in this case is. As to the question of whether they needed to change their policies, since it’s normal in an effort like this, a report like this, to make recommendations, we felt that we couldn’t let that stand. It seemed to us that the evidence made clear that if they had these other procedures in place—whether they’re written down as policy or not matters less than they are embedded in everyone’s daily expectations of what the work requires.

If they had had that shared expectation, then somebody would have spoken up along the way—”Wait a minute, we’re not doing what we do. We have to give them all of these facts and ask them if they can verify them.” Or “We have to find these three people, even if it means we have to hold this piece for two more weeks or a month and we have to send Sabrina back to Charlottesville to find them. We can’t go forward with the narrative as is without doing that.” That either could have been a clearly written policy or just could have been a shared and unquestioned set of expectations. That’s the thing that needed to be, I thought, clarified if you’re going to make any recommendations.

There are a couple of controversial practices that arise in this piece but that also extend beyond it to other kinds of journalism. One of them is the use of pseudonyms. Is there ever a time when a journalist should introduce fictionalized names into their work?

Coronel: Very, very rarely. If you say the source cannot be named I don’t know that you should use a pseudonym. I believe in cases where, I think the New York Times has done this, in cases where it’s an illegal immigrant and they didn’t want that immigrant to be identified that they used a pseudonym or something close to the name.

Coll: Personally, I would start with a ban and take pleadings for the once-in-a-millenium exception, because there are almost always alternatives. Obviously if you use confidential sources to bring important information to the public then you can’t also have a policy that you will never publish less than a person’s full name when they’re the subject of your reporting. It’s a question of, do you introduce fiction, affirmative fiction, because that’s what a pseudonym is. There are always ways to protect someone’s identity. If the person’s so at risk that you believe they might be in harm’s way if you used their middle name or nickname or some other form, and you still felt it was in the public interest to write about them then, well, I still wouldn’t use a pseudonym. Just call them “the soldier” or “the officer” or “the general” or whatever form of appellation is true, but not a pseudonym.

Right. I thought there was a really good line in your report that essentially said, once you introduce fiction, it takes a real leap on the part of the reader to trust that the rest of the piece is actually true.

Coronel: In the Rolling Stone case, pseudonyms were used mainly to paper over gaps in the reporting. Of all the many reasons you might want to use pseudonyms, this one should never be considered.

The other journalistic practice that surfaces in this report involves the decision to curtail crucial avenues of reporting in order to pacify a source. What would you say to journalists wondering whether they should ever engage in the practice of shutting down reporting lines for fear of offending or endangering a source?

Coll: That’s certainly not a reason to refrain from reporting — because you would lose the subject of a story who would voluntarily withdraw because they’re uncomfortable with the necessities of your journalistic practice. But you’re asking a broader question, which is: are there other circumstances? I can’t think of any in my own experience where a source has made an explicit request to refrain from contacting a particular individual. So what would be a valid basis for negotiation?

Coronel: I’m thinking if you’re reporting from some repressive country, where you put somebody at risk, say a witness to a massacre, and that witness could be identified by the perpetrator.

Coll: But then you wouldn’t just accept that you would fail to verify those facts, you would negotiate with them and develop an understanding about what form of verification would be necessary for you and acceptable to them.…So you would start with the idea that someone’s life would have to be at risk. Jackie did say that she was deathly afraid of this guy. But, a response to someone’s request to refrain from necessary journalistic practice because their life is at risk should be to either withdraw from publishing a story because the story is not worth that person’s life or to negotiate with that person for a mutually agreeable alternative that allows you to verify the information adequately but leaves that person comfortable that the fear they expressed is no longer a concern.

What you find normally when someone expresses concern about your reporting, whether it’s about being at risk or they’re just nervous about their job, the best response is just to start talking. To say, “Look, I have to do this but I certainly don’t want you to lose your job so let’s talk about ways we can both end up in a good place.

This was obviously an enormous endeavor for you guys. It took months to complete, you took it on at no charge, and I assume you did it as a public service for the profession of journalism. I’m wondering what you would say is the biggest takeaway for the people in our industry who read this — a number which I imagine will be in the many thousands.

Coronel: Verify, verify, verify. That’s what I’d take away from it. Also, that it is possible to be sensitive to survivors of sexual assault while also corroborating their stories, and we’ve mapped out ways how that can be done.

Coll: I think a lot of it is very specific about how the subtleties of reporting practice can have enormous consequences. For example, take the fact that the Rolling Stone sincerely believed they fact-checked this story. But the difference between really presenting a subject of a report with all of the details that you indeed to publish in a story on a “no surprises” basis, being willing to enter into conflict with sources and subjects before a story comes out. That’s also a kind of fact-checking. It’s not the same as the first kind. And so differences matter enormously in professional practice, as to what exactly is required at certain intersections.

If anyone thinks there was a golden age of excellent reporting practice, that’s probably wrong. But certainly now, there are a lot of new entrants and a lot of young self-educating reporters who need a way to talk about these practices at a level of real ethical detail and seriousness. Because if you get it wrong that can not only have consequences that are serious for others but you can end your career, real quickly.

Elizabeth Spayd is the editor in chief and publisher of CJR.