Update: The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity says it will sue Rolling Stone over the magazine's discredited rape story. In a statement, the fraternity said it "plans to pursue all available legal action against the magazine."
UVA Chapter President Stephen Scipione said, "The report by Columbia University's School of Journalism demonstrates the reckless nature in which Rolling Stone researched and failed to verify facts in its article that erroneously accused Phi Kappa Psi of crimes its members did not commit. This type of reporting serves as a sad example of a serious decline of journalistic standards."
Rolling Stone officially retracted its November story about a brutal gang rape at UVA after a damning report found that the magazine got just about everything wrong.
In a more than 12,000-word piece by Columbia Journalism Review (which RS commissioned), the magazine is criticized for failing repeatedly to do even basic journalistic due diligence, like double-checking its sole source's claims. Contributing editor Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author of the article in question, apologized in a statement via Rolling Stone, not just for her mistakes, but for how those mistakes might hurt other survivors, saying she's sorry to “any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article."
Her piece told the story of Jackie, a student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville who claimed she was gang raped at a frat party as a freshman in 2012. Jackie recounted a horrific attack at the hands of seven young men, and said the school did little to help her.
Inconsistencies in Jackie’s allegations brought intense scrutiny of her as well as of Erdely's entire article, and last month the Charlottesville police department put its investigation of the alleged rape on hold citing insufficient evidence. As the incident was reported entirely from the victim’s perspective (along with some comments from Jackie about what her friends said in the days following it), Erdely was roundly criticized for failing to track down the student's purported attackers. Media critics questioned Rolling Stone’s journalistic integrity, both for publishing the iffy piece, and for initially defending it. (In a December statement to the Washington Post, RS explained, “Through our extensive reporting and fact–checking, we found Jackie to be entirely credible and courageous.”)
In an unusual move, Rolling Stone pulled the original story off its website last night, replacing it with CJR’s rather scathing report — “a piece of journalism about a failure of journalism,” one of the report's authors, Steve Coll, called it — in its entirety. What Columbia found in its investigation was less than favorable regarding editorial practices at the iconic music magazine.
Coll (the dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism), along with Sheila Coronel, and Derek Kravitz painstakingly documented how “A Rape on Campus” came about, sifting through Erdely’s notes to recount how she found Jackie to begin with. (According to CJR, Erdely told a UVA staffer who was also a survivor of rape that she was “searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show ‘what it’s like to be on campus now.’”)
The UVA employee put her in touch with Jackie, CJR says, and the rest is (very controversial) history. Erdely, the CJR report states, lost faith in the integrity of her own story soon after it was published, when she tried to get Jackie to reveal the name of the ringleader who’d brought her to the frat house on the night of her attack. (She had said he was a lifeguard at the pool where she worked.) When Jackie agreed to reveal his identity, she couldn't spell his last name — another red flag for the reporter.
Indeed, CJR notes that Jackie wasn’t the easiest source for a seasoned journalist like Erdely to work with; she would, reportedly, disappear and fail to respond to Erdely’s messages: “That led to tense exchanges between Erdely and Jackie, but the confrontation ended when Rolling Stone’s editors decided to go ahead without knowing the lifeguard’s name or verifying his existence.”
CJR writes that RS and Erdely seem to believe their biggest misstep may have been in being “too deferential” in their handling of survivors of rape (i.e., they didn’t push Jackie hard enough to name her attackers because they didn’t want to further traumatize her.) CJR does not agree with that idea; instead, the authors write, Erdely could have interviewed other survivors with clearer narratives, but perhaps chose to highlight Jackie as the article’s sole focus precisely because her story was so shocking.
In all, CJR concludes, the magazine’s biggest mistake may have been “[investing] Rolling Stone’s reputation in a single source” — that is, Erdely’s decision not to interview any sources about Jackie’s story other than, well, Jackie. The report explains that Erdely failed to speak with additional sources to corroborate Jackie’s account because Erdely didn’t want to press Jackie too hard and risk alienating her or prompt her to bow out altogether.
CJR did speak with some of the third parties Erdely didn’t reach (like Jackie’s three friends mentioned in the original piece), and found a tangle of accounts that seemed to contradict Jackie’s: “The friends said that Jackie told them that her date on Sept. 28 was not a lifeguard but a student in her chemistry class named Haven Monahan. (The Charlottesville police said in March they could not identify a UVA student or any other person named Haven Monahan.)”
Rolling Stone’s errors, CJR asserts, encompassed writing, editing, fact checking and more. Will Dana, the magazine's managing editor, now acknowledges the depth of the mess his team got into, telling CJR, “Every single person at every level of this thing had opportunities to pull the strings a little harder, to question things a little more deeply, and that was not done.”
For her part, Erdely, who has been mum since the drama began last winter, also released an apology on Sunday, stating, per The New York Times: "I did not go far enough to verify [Jackie’s] 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... I hope that my mistakes in reporting this story do not silence the voices of victims that need to be heard."
That, to us, is the most disturbing fallout from this whole thing; that Erdely’s story may have done precisely the opposite of the good it intended. Instead of shining a light on the prevalence of campus rape and the administrative inaction that often surrounds it, as CJR writes, “The magazine’s failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations.” Quite a grievous failure, for sure.