Rolling Stone has officially retracted its widely discredited November 2014 report about a gang rape that allegedly took place at a University of Virginia frat after a review commissioned by the magazine concluded that it was a “journalistic failure that was avoidable.” In late December, the magazine asked the Columbia Journalism School to conduct an independent review of “A Rape on Campus,” promising to release the findings in full. The 12,000-word report published online Sunday night dissects how the story was reported, and it concludes that there were failures at every level of the reporting and editing process. “The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all,” said the three-person team of Columbia journalists.
The report begins with a note from Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana. He writes:
This report was painful reading, to me personally and to all of us at Rolling Stone. It is also, in its own way, a fascinating document — a piece of journalism, as Coll describes it, about a failure of journalism. With its publication, we are officially retracting ‘A Rape on Campus.’ We are also committing ourselves to a series of recommendations about journalistic practices that are spelled out in the report. We would like to apologize to our readers and to all of those who were damaged by our story and the ensuing fallout, including members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and UVA administrators and students. Sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses, and it is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward. It saddens us to think that their willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings.
Like when Charlottesville, Virginia, police said last month that they were “not able to conclude to any substantive degree” that the events described by a UVA student identified as “Jackie” actually occurred, it’s noted that Rolling Stone is only retracting its own reporting, not saying definitively that Jackie was not attacked on the night of September 28, 2012.
According to the Columbia report, Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely and the magazine’s fact-checker believed Jackie’s account was reliable, though they did not speak with other key sources, such as the alleged rapist or the three friends who helped her after the attack. In December, Jackie told the Washington Post that she was so rattled by Erdely’s questions that she asked to be removed from the article, but the reporter pressured her to remain involved. Per the Post:
Overwhelmed by sitting through interviews with the writer, Jackie said she asked Erdely to be taken out of the article. She said Erdely refused, and Jackie was told that the article would go forward regardless.
Jackie said she finally relented and agreed to participate on the condition that she be able to fact-check her parts in the story, which she said Erdely agreed to.
“I didn’t want the world to read about the worst three hours of my life, the thing I have nightmares about every night,” Jackie said.
Erdely and Rolling Stone have also suggested that they made an agreement with Jackie not to name her attacker.
The Columbia journalists found that Erdely was concerned at times that Jackie might back out, but Jackie never made that threat and did not tell Erdely that she could not independently contact those involved in the story.
Editors raised concerns about why elements of Jackie’s story were not independently verified; Erdely could not reach Jackie’s three friends and did not even know her alleged attacker’s full name. Yet they decided to move forward with the story anyway, ostensibly because they did not want to further traumatize a rape victim. “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” said Sean Woods, the story’s principal editor. “We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”
However, the Columbia journalists reject this assessment. “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,” they write. “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.”
Erdely told the Columbia team that during a phone call with Jackie a week after the story was published, the student thanked her profusely for covering her story. The reporter decided to press her for her attacker’s last name, promising “this is not going to be published.” Jackie gave her a name, but said she wasn’t sure how it was spelled. “An alarm bell went off in my head,” Erdely said. She felt that if Jackie was actually as terrified as she claimed, she would certainly know the man’s name. She was unable to confirm the alleged attacker’s existence, and brought her concerns to her editors just as other outlets were beginning to challenge her story.
Erdely released a lengthy statement on Sunday night, saying that the past few months “have been among the most painful of my life.” She continued:
Reading the Columbia account of the mistakes and misjudgments in my reporting was a brutal and humbling experience. I want to offer my deepest apologies: to Rolling Stone’s readers, to my Rolling Stone editors and colleagues, to the U.V.A. community, and to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.
Over my 20 years of working as an investigative journalist — including at Rolling Stone, a magazine I grew up loving and am honored to work for — I have often dealt with sensitive topics and sources. In writing each of these stories I must weigh my compassion against my journalistic duty to find the truth. However, in the case of Jackie and her account of her traumatic rape, I did not go far enough to verify her story. I allowed my concern for Jackie’s well-being, my fear of re-traumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts. These are mistakes I will not make again.
Reporting on rape has unique challenges, but the journalist still has the responsibility to get it right. I hope that my mistakes in reporting this story do not silence the voices of victims that need to be heard.
It appears there will be no further consequences for those involved in the article’s publication. According to the Columbia report, Rolling Stone’s senior editors said they don’t consider this a sign that they need to change their editorial process. “It’s not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don’t think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things,” Dana said. “We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.” Coco McPherson, the magazine’s fact-checking chief, added, “I one hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter.”
Following the report’s publication, Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone’s publisher, told the New York Times that editorial practices have been updated, and they’re “not going to cut those corners even for the most sympathetic reasons.” Editors Will Dana and Sean Woods will not be fired, and Erdely will continue writing for the magazine, because he considers this an isolated incident that originated with the source. He said he did not want to blame Jackie, “but obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.”