Rolling Stone and UVA: The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Report
The Editing: ‘I Wish Somebody Had Pushed Me Harder’
Sean Woods, Erdely’s primary editor, might have prevented the effective retraction of Jackie’s account by pressing his writer to close the gaps in her reporting. He started his career in music journalism but had been editing complex reported features at Rolling Stone for years. Investigative reporters working on difficult, emotive or contentious stories often have blind spots. It is up to their editors to insist on more phone calls, more travel, more time, until the reporting is complete. Woods did not do enough.
Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner said he typically reads about half of the stories in each issue before publication. He read a draft of Erdely’s narrative and found Jackie’s case “extremely strong, powerful, provocative. … I thought we had something really good there.” But Wenner leaves the detailed editorial supervision to managing editor Will Dana, who has been at the magazine for almost two decades. Dana might have looked more deeply into the story drafts he read, spotted the reporting gaps and insisted that they be fixed. He did not. “It’s on me,” Dana said. “I’m responsible.”
In hindsight, 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.
Erdely said that as she was preparing to write her first draft, she talked with Woods about the three friends. “Sean advised me that for now we should just put this aside,” she said. “He actually suggested that I change their names for now.” Woods said that he intended this decision to be temporary, pending further reporting and review.
Erdely used pseudonyms in her first draft: “Randall,” “Cindy” and “Andrew.” She relied solely on Jackie’s information and wrote vividly about how the three friends had reacted after finding Jackie shaken and weeping in the first hours of Sept. 29:
The group looked at each other in a panic. They all knew about Jackie’s date that evening at Phi Kappa Psi, the house looming behind them. “We have got to get her to the hospital,” Randall declared. The other two friends, however, weren’t convinced. “Is that such a good idea?” countered Cindy. … “Her reputation will be shot for the next four years.” Andrew seconded the opinion. The three friends launched into a heated discussion about the social price of reporting Jackie’s rape, while Jackie stood behind them, mute in her bloody dress.
Erdely inserted a note in her draft, in bold type: “she says – all her POV” – to indicate to her editors that the dialogue had come only from Jackie.
“In retrospect, I wish somebody had pushed me harder” about reaching out to the three for their versions, Erdely said. “I guess maybe I was surprised that nobody said, ‘Why haven’t you called them?’ But nobody did, and I wasn’t going to press that issue.” Of course, just because an editor does not ask a reporter to check derogatory information with a subject, that does not absolve the reporter of responsibility.
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