A top journalism school's leaders are defending their scathing report on Rolling Stone's now-debunked story on a reported gang rape at the University of Virginia, in particular the fact that they have not recommended that anybody lose their job over journalistic failures they called systematic and broad.
"These are not failures of dishonesty,” the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism's dean Steve Coll told reporters at a Monday afternoon news conference. "They are systematic failures, collective failures.”
He and academic dean Sheila Coronel stressed that the false story was “not the source’s fault,” and Coronel blamed "problems of newsroom standards and procedures.”
They urged Rolling Stone to rely on clearer, fuller attribution in future stories, and to be transparent about what its reporter did and didn't know.
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"Journalistically, this was a failure of policy and of methodology and of practice, and it wasn't the subject's failure," Coll added.
Rolling Stone has pledged to review its editorial practices but won't fire anyone after Columbia said in its blistering critique of how the story was reported that the magazine's shortcomings "encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking," adding that the article is a "story of journalistic failure that was avoidable."
The analysis was accompanied by a statement from Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana apologizing for the failures and retracting the November 2014 story. Some University of Virginia students said none of that will erase the article's repercussions.
"I think the real casualty of the report is the University of Virginia's trust in journalism," said Abraham Axler of New York City, president of the university's Student Council. "I don't think any University of Virginia student going through this will ever read an article the same way."
Maggie Rossberg, a second-year nursing student from Crozet, Virginia, said her chief concern is the effect the journalistic lapses will have on rape victims. "This is probably going to discourage other sexual assault survivors from coming forward," Rossberg said.
The Columbia review was undertaken at Rolling Stone's request and posted on both organizations' websites. It presented a broad indictment of the magazine's handling of a story that had horrified readers, unleashed protests at the university's Charlottesville campus and sparked a national discussion about sexual assaults on college campuses.
It came two weeks after the Charlottesville police department said it had found no evidence to back the claims of the victim, identified in the story only as "Jackie," who said she was raped by seven men at a fraternity house.
The article's author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, also apologized in a statement, saying she would not repeat the mistakes she made when writing the article, "A Rape on Campus."
"Reading the Columbia account of the mistakes and misjudgements in my reporting was a brutal and humbling experience," she said.
The magazine's publisher, Jann S. Wenner, however, told The New York Times that Erdely would continue to write for the magazine and that neither her editor nor Dana would be fired.
The university's president issued a statement accusing Rolling Stone of "irresponsible journalism."
Rolling Stone had asked for the independent review after numerous news media outlets found flaws with the story about Jackie, who said the attack happened during a social event at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house more than two years earlier. The article quoted Jackie as saying that the attack was orchestrated by a fraternity member who worked with her at the school's aquatic center.
The report found three major flaws in the magazine's reporting methodology: that Erdely did not try to contact the three friends, instead taking Jackie's word for it that one of them refused to talk; that she failed to give enough details of the alleged assault when she contacted the fraternity for comment, which made it difficult for the organization to investigate; and that Rolling Stone did not try hard enough to find the person Jackie accused of orchestrating the assault.
If the fraternity had had more information, it might have been able to explain earlier that it did not hold a social function the night of the attack and that none of its members worked at the aquatic center, the report noted.
Soon after the article was published, several news media organizations began finding problems with the account, forcing Rolling Stone to acknowledge on Dec. 5 that there were discrepancies.
Dana and Erdely said they had been too accommodating of requests from Jackie that limited their ability to report the story because she said she was a rape victim and asked them not to contact others to corroborate, the report said.
However, Columbia's report said, Rolling Stone also failed to investigate reporting leads even when Jackie had not specifically asked them not to.
"The editors made judgments about attribution, fact-checking and verification that greatly increased their risks of error but had little or nothing to do with protecting Jackie's position," it said.
The report said Rolling Stone's article may cast doubt on future accusations of rape. It also said the article damaged the reputation of the Phi Kappa Psi chapter at U.Va. and depicted the university administration as neglectful.
Prior to the issuance of the journalism school's report, the fraternity called the Rolling Stone article defamatory and said it was exploring legal options. Neither the fraternity nor its lawyer would comment Sunday night.
Dana said magazine officials are "committing ourselves to a series of recommendations about journalistic practices that are spelled out in the report."
In her statement, U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan said the article hurt efforts to fight sexual violence, tarred the school's reputation, and falsely accused some students "of heinous, criminal acts and falsely depicted others as indifferent to the suffering of their classmate." The story falsely depicted the university as callous toward sexual assault victims, reinforcing their reluctance to come forward, she said.
Nonetheless, the article heightened scrutiny of campus sexual assaults amid a campaign by President Barack Obama. The University of Virginia had already been on the Department of Education's list of 55 colleges under investigation for their handling of sex assault violations.