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The 4 key things Rolling Stone did wrong on its UVA story

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Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The 12,000-word Columbia Journalism School report on Rolling Stone's journalistic failure is long, enraging reading. It describes Rolling Stone as having abandoned basic reporting principles because they believed Jackie, the alleged rape victim at the center of the article, was a credible source.

The article detailed a gang rape in a fraternity house at the University of Virginia, and the callous response from the university's administration that followed. But after the article appeared in November, the Washington Post interviewed students close to Jackie and found significant holes in her account. The Charlottesville police department concluded there was no evidence the rape had happened as Jackie described it.

The report is long — 24 pages in print, and thousands of words longer than the original Rolling Stone story itself. But to understand how serious the problems are that it surfaces, you really just need to see these four paragraphs.

1) Reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely didn't do even cursory due diligence

The most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was to accept that Erdely had not contacted the three friends who spoke with Jackie on the night she said she was raped. That was the reporting path, if taken, that would have almost certainly led the magazine's editors to change plans.

2) Requests for comment were not nearly detailed enough

Last October, as she was finishing her story, Erdely emailed Stephen Scipione, Phi Kappa Psi's local chapter president. "I've become aware of allegations of gang rape that have been made against the UVA chapter of Phi Kappa Psi," Erdely wrote. "Can you comment on those allegations?"

It was a decidedly truncated version of the facts that Erdely believed she had in hand. She did not reveal Jackie's account of the date of the attack. She did not reveal that Jackie said Phi Kappa Psi had hosted a "date function" that night, that prospective pledges were present or that the man who allegedly orchestrated the attack was a Phi Kappa Psi member who was also a lifeguard at the university aquatic center.

3) Nearly everyone who touched the story failed

Erdely's reporting records and interviews with participants make clear that the magazine did not pursue important reporting paths even when Jackie had made no request that they refrain. 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.

4) Everyone was too trusting

This was a provocative, complex story heavily reliant on a single source. [Coco McPherson, the head of the fact-checking department] said later that she had faith in everyone involved and didn't see the need to raise any issues with the editors.

Taken together, these four paragraphs show numerous holes and missteps in Rolling Stone's reporting process. And, this is essentially the point of the Columbia report. It depicts a reporting and editing process gone terribly wrong, where faith in a single source became so overpowering that it overrode the normal journalistic imperative of checking a story from every possible angle and finding as much corroboration as possible.

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