College journalism professors may want to take a close look the press conference held today by Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo. The occasion for Longo’s extensive statement was the conclusion of a five-month investigation into sexual assault allegations at the University of Virginia as reported in a Nov. 19, 2014, story in Rolling Stone magazine titled “A Rape on Campus.”
The particulars behind Longo’s remarks are familiar to news junkies and certainly to readers of this blog: Rolling Stone’s story started with a dramatic gang-rape scenario in which a freshman named Jackie was allegedly a victim on Sept. 28, 2012. The story fell apart after The Washington Post’s Metro section, among others, exposed contradictions between the Rolling Stone account and the recollections of various sources. The magazine later conceded that they’d declined to interview the alleged assaulters in deference to the wishes of the alleged victim; the magazine hadn’t interviewed friends of Jackie, either, as The Post also reported.
In fact, it was unclear just what reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely did do to confirm the various reports of sexual assaults in the story, not to mention a bottle-throwing incident that police couldn’t corroborate.
Good thing, then, that Longo today took the public through all the steps that his investigators took — and some of which Erdely & Co. could have taken to verify the claims that they eventually published with utter recklessness. Here’s a rundown of some key aspects of the Charlottesville PD’s reporting:
- They obtained a roster of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity in an attempt to find members who were around at the time of the alleged gang rape. They eventually interviewed nine of the 14 members who were in the fraternity at the time. The also sent a questionnaire to fraternity members.
- They interviewed Jackie’s roommate about the injury resulting from the alleged bottle-throwing incident in early April.
- They checked phone records from the night of the alleged bottle-throwing incident — April 6, 2014 — to determine whether Jackie had called her mother, as she claimed.
- They secured redacted records from the University of Virginia on various interactions with Jackie.
- They searched for evidence that a party had happened on the night of the alleged gang rape; they even checked with the sister sorority of the Phi Kappa Psi house and discovered that it was indeed hosting a “formal” on Sept. 28, 2012.
- They got ahold of a photograph of the interior of the Phi Kappa Psi house time-stamped on the night of the alleged gang rape.
- They checked bank records to see whether Phi Kappa Psi had bought party stuff in preparation for a big event on that night.
- They checked dispatch records in search of calls for service to the fraternity’s address.
- They interviewed two of Jackie’s friends.
- They jumped through all manner of investigative hoops to find Jackie’s date on the night of the alleged gang rape, a effort that wound through extensive computer searches, interviews — an exhaustive amount of investigative work on its own.
- They checked with the Charlottesville restaurant — the Boar’s Head Inn — where Jackie and her date allegedly went to eat on the night of the alleged gang rape.
A qualification here: The police have investigative methods — searches of bank records and telephone records, for instance — that were never available to Erdely, who approached this situation as a magazine reporter. Yet the list above shows how many of avenues of inquiry are available to a reporter seeking to confirm a story with this many points of access.
We’ll wait for the results of a Columbia Journalism School review of Rolling Stone’s reporting to see just how much reporting Erdely did. But if the magazine had followed the paths eventually taken by the cops, presumably it would have reached the same findings — that is, no evidence that these allegations were true.
Alas, one thing is terribly clear from Longo’s presentation. The Charlottesville police department sunk countless resources into an investigation launched by a biased and reckless story by Rolling Stone. “A lot of time and energy went into tracking down people,” said Longo, who couldn’t put a price tag on the investigation.
So if Rolling Stone magazine wishes to fire up a new set of apologies, it ought to include Charlottesville citizens among the recipients.