Erdely’s reporting led her to other, adjudicated cases of rape at the university that could have illustrated her narrative, although none was as shocking and dramatic as Jackie’s.
Yet the explanation that Rolling Stone failed because it deferred to a victim cannot adequately account for what went wrong. 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.
It would be unfortunate if Rolling Stone’s failure were to deter journalists from taking on high-risk investigations of rape in which powerful individuals or institutions may wish to avoid scrutiny but where the facts may be underdeveloped. There is clearly a need for a more considered understanding and debate among journalists and others about the best practices for reporting on rape survivors, as well as on sexual assault allegations that have not been adjudicated. This report will suggest ways forward. It will also seek to clarify, however, why Rolling Stone’s failure with “A Rape on Campus” need not have happened, even accounting for the magazine’s sensitivity to Jackie’s position. That is mainly a story about reporting and editing.