‘Rolling Stone’ Retracts UVA Rape Story In Wake Of Columbia University Report
Rolling Stone officially retracted its December 2014 article on an alleged rape at University of Virginia in the wake of a scathing report by the Columbia University Journalism School on the magazine’s reporting practices.
Rolling Stone Officially Retracts “A Rape On Campus”
In December, Rolling Stone published “A Rape On Campus” by Sabrina Erdely. The article appeared to expose how a woman, identified as Jackie, was gang raped at a fraternity at the University of Virginia and how her case was mishandled by university authorities. The article was quickly called into question, with reports of inconsistencies in Jackie’s story and factual errors. For example, in the article, Jackie claimed she was raped at a frat party, but the fraternity insisted there was no party on the night Jackie claimed she was raped there. In days, the story fell apart and Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana was forced to print an apology. In addition to making a public statement, Dana also commissioned Columbia Journalism School (CJS) Deans Sheila Coronel and Steve Coll to conduct a separate investigation into their reporting practices.
Now that the official report has been released, Rolling Stone is retracting the article and has published CJS’s findings on their official website (a shortened version will be printed in their next magazine issue.)
“This report was painful reading, to be 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 recommendation 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,” Dana wrote.
CJS Report: “A Failure Of Journalism”
Columbia Journalism School released their lengthy report on Rolling Stone’s controversial “A Rape on Campus” on Sunday, April 5, and held a press conference on Monday to clarify their findings, calling the entire story a “failure of journalism.”
Dana’s first instinct upon learning “A Rape on Campus” wasn’t entirely accurate was to blame Jackie for providing Erdely with a false account of her trauma, insisting that the magazine had refrained from any vigorous fact-checking for fear of re-traumatizing Jackie:
“Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any one of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her. In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced,” Dana said at the time.
After critics pointed out that Dana’s statement could encourage the unfortunate nature of blaming the victim, Dana and the magazine quietly changed their statement. The sentiment of blaming Jackie persists despite CJS’s findings that Jackie’s false account of gang rape was not at fault for the poorly vetted article, nor could the magazine blame all their missteps on a desire to protect Jackie.
“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. 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,” reads the CJS report.
In Monday’s press conference, CJS’s Coronel and Coll made clear that they believe all journalistic fault lies with the publication, not Jackie. “We disagree with any suggestion that this is Jackie’s fault,” Coll stated, adding, “It was the collective fault of the reporter, the editor…and the fact-checking department.”
Is Rolling Stone Still Blaming Jackie?
Meanwhile, Erdely released her first statement on the matter in the wake of the CJS report, and again mentioned Jackie, saying, “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.”
Rolling Stone publisher Jann S. Wenner described Jackie as “a really expert fabulist storyteller” in an interview with The New York Times.
The editor of “A Rape On Campus,” Sean Woods, told CJS, “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim. We honored too many of her requests in our reporting. We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice,”
At the press conference, Coll appeared to disprove Erdely’s statements that she failed her responsibility as a reporter due to her concern for Jackie, saying, “The evidence doesn’t support that defense…. They were struggling to think about how do you report on someone in her [Jackie’s] position, but their failure was not related to that struggle.”
The CJS report identified Erdely’s decision not to pursue the three friends Jackie allegedly spoke to on the night of her rape as the crucial problem with her report, stating, “In hindsight, the most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was to accept that Erdely had not contacted the three friends who spoke with Jackie on the night she said she was raped… That was the reporting path, if taken, that would have almost certainly led the magazine’s editors to change plans.”
At the press conference, Coronel added that, in hindsight, Erdely would have been better off had she chosen not to focus on one story, or on Jackie’s story in particular. “She could have walked away from Jackie as an example. She had other examples, other strong stories,” said Coronel.
Regardless of blame or fault for the reporting, Coll and Coronel clarified at their press conference that if the public takes away anything from this ordeal, it should be that journalism as an institution needs to work on how they report on sexual assault.
“I think we are particularly focused in the report on the idea that it would be a really unfortunate outcome if journalists backed away from doing this kind of reporting as a result of this highly visible failure. Because this is important work – it’s hard work… This kind of reporting environment, this kind of subject…you know, it’s a new frontier for serious accountability journalism… I think there is a context here, which is our record as a profession in reporting on sexual violence is not great. And this is an area where we have to have a conversation amongst ourselves to figure out how to get better, because it’s important work,” Coll said.
Rolling Stone has not announced any changes to their reporting policies, and the publication will not be firing any employee as a result of this controversy.
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