Last summer, Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely went looking for a story.
She wanted to write a piece about the growing issue of rape on American college campuses. Her sources put her in touch with a woman from the University of Virginia who was willing to tell her shocking story. In order to gather the facts for the story, Erdely talked with the woman eight times. An editor later edited the story. A fact-checker checked the facts and an in-house lawyer signed off allowing it to be published.
The staff of Rolling Stone magazine did everything they were supposed to do before publishing an expose. And it’s not like this was their first controversial article. A previous expose had cost a General his career and their Boston Bomber cover nearly caused riots in the streets.
But something went wrong.
Shortly after the article was published, the author told her editor she had “lost confidence in her sourcing”. The editor pulled the story from the website and it all fell apart from there. The Washington Post did an expose on the expose. The college started fighting back and a police investigation turned up no evidence of a crime.
It didn’t stop there.
This week, the Columbia Journalism School released a report detailing a long list of places Rolling Stone staffers went wrong. Failures in the interview process. Failures in the fact checking process. Failures at the editorial level. Really? How could so many people get so much, so wrong?
They got it wrong, because they wanted to believe; not that a young woman had been brutally assaulted, but that they were about to make a difference in the world. After all, nobody would make up a story like that, would they?
Apparently, someone did.
The Rolling Stone published a statement on their site:
There is no evidence in Erdely’s materials or from interviews with her subjects that she invented facts; the problem was that she relied on what Jackie told her without vetting its accuracy.
Yet Rolling Stone‘s senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems. “It’s not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don’t think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things,” Dana said. “We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.”
The mea culpa does not include firing anyone involved in the incident. In an email to the Washington Post, editor Will Dana said “Sabrina’s done great work for us over the years and we expect that to continue.”
That’s a hugely, unpopular response but you have to give Dana credit for shouldering some of the responsibility. He could have made a sacrificial lamb out of his reporter but he didn’t. I like that. It’s going to cost him and it’s going to cost the magazine but he’s standing firm on the “honest mistake” platform. He’s sorry it happened, but it wasn’t intentional. And though firing Sabrina Rubin Erdely might make the vocal masses happy, it won’t fix the magazine’s reputation or the University’s. Only time can do that.
In the meantime, I worry about what affect this story will have on the next victim. Will people believe, or will they hesitate because of a dubious story in Rolling Stone that ruined reputations?
What do you think? Should Rolling Stone fire everyone involved with the story, just the reporter, or no one at all?