Yesterday Rolling Stone formally retracted its now-notorious story about a gang rape that supposedly happened at a University of Virginia fraternity. The retraction followed the release of a report by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism that concluded that the publication of the story in the first place was the product of a devastating series of failures by Rolling Stone, its reporter, and its editorial staff.
It’s to Rolling Stone‘s credit that it commissioned the CSJ report in the first place, but the report itself, and Rolling Stone‘s response to it, make me wonder whether I will ever fully credit one of its stories again. The report documents a breakdown in basic journalism — relying primarily on one source, accepting stories at face value without sufficient fact-checking, failing to confirm quotes and facts with multiple sources, and allowing sensitivity for the alleged victim to trump the skepticism that should be an essential part of every reporter’s tool kit. It is a damning indictment of Rolling Stone‘s entire editorial process.
In response to the report, Rolling Stone‘s long-time publisher, Jann Wenner, said that the reporter who wrote the piece would continue to write for the magazine and that the managing editor of the magazine and the editor of the story itself would keep their jobs. It’s a show of loyalty on Rolling Stone‘s part, I suppose, but it’s astonishing that people who utterly failed in the basics of reporting are not being fired for their role in a piece that ruined the magazine’s reputation for credible journalism — and, of course, maligned the University of Virginia, its fraternity system, and its students as well.
One other thing about Rolling Stone‘s response, as reported by the New York Times, seems a bit too pat: the explanations for their failures, from the reporter to the editors, all come back to the notion that they wanted to be sensitive to the claimed rape victim. I suspect that back story is a bit of a dodge. I expect that someone along the line concluded that Rolling Stone had a sensational and sordid story in hand, and the basics of reporting were sacrificed in the rush to make a big splash. It would have been nice if someone at Rolling Stone had admitted that sensationalism, too, played a role.