The authors of a scathing report on Rolling Stone’s retracted November story, “A Rape on Campus,” spoke at Princeton April 27, with words of caution, and inspiration, for student journalists.
Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, and Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs there, said that they wrote the report to make the controversy a teachable moment for their students and other journalists, especially those that want to take on matters of sexual misconduct. A capacity audience at Richardson Auditorium was eager to learn.
“The failure was entirely avoidable,” Coll said, countering the claim made by Rolling Stone, shortly after flaws in the story were exposed, that the failure was a result of sensitivity to the feelings of survivors of sexual assault. Student questioners pressed this point, asking if such thorough repudiation of the story would suppress reporting on sexual misconduct, an issue that Princeton and other universities have made recent efforts to address. “Journalism has a terrible record, over the last 70 years, on sexual assault,” Coll said, and said that correcting that record is essential for tackling the issue, especially in ambiguous cases, such as those that are unadjudicated, or in which facts are underdeveloped. He said that the report is part of the process. “It’s really important that journalism figures out how to do this work well and reliably,” he said.
Joe Stephens, Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton and the moderator of the discussion, made his name in the field exposing large organizations for wrongdoing. He expressed skepticism that Rolling Stone had sufficiently reformed its practices. Coronel said that the organization had accepted the report’s recommendations and that editors appeared remorseful and committed to change, but she added that the students in the audience, in some cases, may be better positioned to report on sexual misconduct than storied magazines like Rolling Stone. “I think campus journalists can do much better than Rolling Stone did,” Coronel said. “They have more access to students, and hopefully to school administrators, but certainly more understanding of the environment and the culture within campuses that makes these assaults possible.”
The journalists discussed the implications for the form of the story — which began with an attribution-free 1,300 word anecdote — as well as for the way the reporter, Sabrina Erdely, operated, sympathizing with the woman whose story she told. They said that such anecdotes can give readers a deeper understanding of a story, and that empathy remains essential to journalism, but both should be checked by strict adherence to journalistic ethics. “Empathy is a strength in journalism, and in life,” Coronel said.