The long-awaited Columbia Journalism Review report of Rolling Stone’s UVA article, which ostensibly takes the magazine to task for falsely reporting a rape that never happened, sparked a new outcry from both the media and students on America’s college campuses.
They’re horrified that the report could have a chilling effect on students reporting sexual assaults. No concern over the unnamed rapist, who students at UVA were quick to identify regardless. No concern that a decades-old fraternity was forced to close its doors and is now suing Rolling Stone for defamation. And no concern over accusations that may have ruined a young man’s chances in life, simply because he was “accused” without due process.
The report runs around 12,000 words, but this passage captures its strengths and weaknesses: “The problem of confirmation bias – the tendency of people to be trapped by pre-existing assumptions and to select facts that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones – is a well-established finding of social science. It seems to have been a factor here. [Reporter Sabrina Rubin] Erdely believed the university was obstructing justice. She felt she had been blocked. Like many other universities, UVA had a flawed record of managing sexual assault cases. Jackie’s experience seemed to confirm this larger pattern. Her story seemed well established on campus, repeated and accepted.”
There was a confirmation bias here, but not the one CJR detected. The “confirmation bias”—one sadly far too common to the mainstream media, and one that CJR appears to share—involves the manner of covering sexual assault on campus. It’s a “scourge,” Geneva Overholser informed CNN’s Reliable Sources. She cited no evidence to sustain the point, and Bureau of Justice Statistics figures show that rape for non-college women is higher than for women who attend college, at comparable age groups.
The CJR quotes the story editor, Sean Woods, continuing to describe Jackie as a “rape victim,” and incredibly fails to press him on how he could render such a description. Rolling Stone editor Will Dana is quoted expressing dismay at how events developed—if the magazine only had realized that Jackie was a fabulist, inventing a tale of gang rape in pursuit of an on-campus relationship or as a crutch to rescue her when her academic standing was threatened. If so, Dana observed, Erdely could have simply summarized Jackie’s (false) tale “in a paragraph deep in the story.” The thesis of the article, however, seemingly would have been the same, according to Dana, since “there were plenty of other stories we could have told in this piece.”
These “stories” all came from Erdely’s reporting, as funneled through Woods’ editing. Why should anyone believe that these “stories” had any more credibility than Jackie’s, given that Rolling Stone appears to employ only true believers on the issue of campus sexual assault? Neither Rolling Stone—which isn’t firing anyone over the affair, and doesn’t seem intent on even making any noticeable editorial changes as a result of the hoax—nor CJR appeared interested in exploring the question. This is the same Rolling Stone, as Richard Bradley has noted, that recently offered a glowing, wholly non-skeptical review to the movie “The Hunting Ground,” which operates from a premise very similar to that which motivated Erdely.
Perhaps the most dispiriting item of the CJR report came in its concluding section, when authors Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, Steve Coll, dean of the school, and Derek Kravitz offered three lessons for journalists from the affair. The third, entitled “holding institutions to account,” is the most off-putting. “Given the difficulties, journalists are rarely in a position to prove guilt or innocence in rape . . . . [Analyzing how universities handle the accusation] can also make it easier to persuade both victims and perpetrators to talk.” So, having declared that journalists aren’t usually in a position to prove guilt or innocence, CJR did exactly that—there are “victims and perpetrators.” Two sentences later, the report’s authors use the word “accused,” as if “accused” and “perpetrator” are interchangeable.
CJR also recommends that reporters “gain a deep understanding of the tangle of rules and guidelines on campus sexual assault.” I couldn’t agree more. The first step in this would feature a reporter actually describing for readers what the university’s procedures are since many readers doubtless assume, incorrectly, that actual due process exists when schools consider a felony accusation. Yet CJR doesn’t recommend that reporters take this obvious step. Instead, they urge looking at “Title IX, the Clery Act, and the Violence Against Women Act . . . directives from the Office of Civil Rights and recommendations from the White House.” In other words, all sources that accept as a given that a rape epidemic exists on college campuses. Notably absent from this list—defense attorneys or civil liberties organizations.
The CJR report faithfully exposes the journalistic errors committed by Rolling Stone. But because its authors appear to share the preconceived notions of journalists like Dana, Woods, and Erdely, it seems likely that anyone following the report’s advice would risk the same group think problem that destroyed Rolling Stone.