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Podcast: The Failures Behind a Retracted Campus Rape Story

The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia, where a Rolling Stone article reported that a gang rape had occurred in September 2012. (Photo: Jay Paul/Getty Images)

In November, Rolling Stone’s investigative piece “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, had the journalistic community abuzz. Last week, the Columbia Journalism Review declared it “a failure that was avoidable.”

But CJR doesn’t intend for its report to serve as punishment for the journalistic shortfalls it details, says one of the report’s authors, Sheila Coronel, on this week’s podcast with ProPublica’s Jesse Eisinger and Lois Beckett. “We want to think of our work as very much the same that Sabrina did – it’s a teaching case,” says Coronel, dean of academic affairs at Columbia Journalism School and director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Still, the report, commissioned by Rolling Stone but independently conducted, has rekindled the debate, not ended it. Clay Shirky, a New York University journalism professor, wrote in The New Republic that the nearly 13,000-word report was “harmful to journalism,” saying it allowed Rolling Stone “to look transparent (‘We allowed outsiders to investigate us!’) rather than incompetent.”

Coronel says commissioning the report certainly wasn’t the practical thing if Rolling Stone wanted the uproar to subside. “If they thought that this was going to help them recover their reputation at minimal cost,” she says, "I don’t think that it’s been minimal, in terms of their reputation. The furor has not died down.”

Eisinger, who says he lives “in terror of getting things wrong in some fundamental way,” concludes that in that sense, Erdely's story is an ideal case for students to take on. “The hardest thing that journalists have to do is try to remain intellectually honest,” he says, “to interrogate their stories, their sources, their underlying assumptions, and try to constantly raise doubts about your own story before it’s published so that you get it right in the end.”

Coronel agrees, saying it will certainly discussed in her future classes: “I hope this case puts the fear of God in them.”

Hear their discussion in the full podcast, available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Read CJR’s report here, and subscribe to ProPublica’s podcasts to hear conversations like these each week.

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