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Rolling Stone officially retracts ‘A Rape on Campus’ article after investigation

Rolling Stone 'A Rape on Campus'

Photo: Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone magazine officially retracted its “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” article yesterday after the results of an investigation commissioned by the magazine and conducted by Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism discredited the article and revealed serious journalistic flaws in the magazine’s processes.

“Rolling Stone’s repudiation of the main narrative in “A Rape on Campus” is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable,” the report found. “The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking.”

“A rape on Campus,” which was originally published on  Nov. 19, 2014, depicted an alleged brutal rape of a student identified only as “Jackie,” that purportedly took place in a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house party.

According to the Columbia report, the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who wrote the article and the magazine’s editors overseeing the story “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.”

Some of the most egregious errors and transgressions of journalistic best practices committed by the writer and the magazine’s editors cited include the use of pseudonyms, poor attribution, and fact-checking and verification, which “greatly increased their risks of error.”

Questions about the veracity of Jackie’s account and the events narrated in the article surfaced soon after it was published. Most scathingly, an article written by the Washington Post’s T. Rees Shapiro that was released a few days after the Rolling Stone article, casted serious doubt into “significant elements” of Jackie’s account.  

The article prompted an investigation by the VA police department which wrapped up in March with no leads and no evidence that the rape ever took place.

“There is no substantive basis to support the account alleged in the Rolling Stone article,” the Charlottesville, Va., police department concluded.

Though Rolling Stone’s editorial staff has shrunk by 25% since 2008, the Columbia investigators concluded that the magazine’s failure was not due to a lack of resources. 

The problem was methodology, compounded by an environment where several journalists with decades of collective experience failed to surface and debate problems about their reporting or to heed the questions they did receive from a fact-checking colleague.”

The New York Times, reported that in an interview discussing Columbia’s findings, Jann S. Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone, acknowledged the piece’s flaws but said that it represented an isolated and unusual episode and that Ms. Erdely would continue to write for the magazine.

And CNN has reported that while Wenner did not respond to its requests for comment about his decision, according to people with direct knowledge of his thinking, he concluded that the publication of Columbia’s report was essentially punishment enough.

According to the Columbia report, “A Rape on Campus” was viewed more than 2.7 million times online– more than any other feature not about a celebrity that the magazine had ever published.

(For the full report and more background information on this story, please visit RollingStone.com.)
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The Response

Will Dana, Rolling Stone‘s managing editor, released this statement along with the investigation’s findings:

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 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.”

Sean Woods, the principal editor of the story was quoted on the Columbia report:

“Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” Woods said.

Rolling Stone‘s publisher, Jann S. Wenner basically blamed the story’s source, “Jackie,” for giving Ms. Erdely a false account of the events. According to the New York Times, Mr. Wenner described her as “‘a really expert fabulist storyteller’ who managed to manipulate the magazine’s journalism process.”

Ms. Erdely released this statement along with the Columbia report:

“The past few months, since my Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus” was first called into question, have been among the most painful of my life. 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.”

The University of Virginia also suffered a damning blow to its reputation as a result of the article.

In response to Rolling Stone‘s retraction, U.V.A. President Teresa A. Sullivan, issued a statement Sunday night.

Rolling Stone’s story, ‘A Rape on Campus,’ did nothing to combat sexual violence, and it damaged serious efforts to address the issue,” she said. “Irresponsible journalism unjustly damaged the reputations of many innocent individuals and the University of Virginia.”

University of Virginia’s Phi Kappa Psi chapter president, Stephen Scipione, said today in Phi Kappa Psi news release:

“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,” said Mr. Scipione. “This type of reporting serves as a sad example of a serious decline of journalistic standards.”

In the same release, Phi Kappa Psi announced plans “to pursue all available legal action” against the magazine for defamation.

“After 130 days of living under a cloud of suspicion as a result of reckless reporting by Rolling Stone magazine, today the Virginia Alpha Chapter of Phi Kappa Psi announced plans to pursue all available legal action against the magazine,” read the fraternity’s statement. 

The Verdict

Commissioning the Columbia investigation was an obvious first step by the Rolling Stone to show the world that it wants to prevent this sort of thing from ever happening again.

But if the magazine does not act on its findings, this report will amount to nothing more than another case study in bad journalism.

Rolling Stone’s decision not to fire anyone involved in the editorial process of this article is absolutely stunning and will undermine all subsequent efforts by the publication to restore its credibility.

That the writer and editors in question have been producing good work their entire lives and shouldn’t have their careers hang on one mistake is surely empathetic.

But Rolling Stone built its reputation on playing hardball.

As Jonathan Mahler of the New York Times reminded us today, this is the magazine that “memorably described the investment bank Goldman Sachs as a ‘great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity” during the financial crisis and whose “unflattering profile” of Gen. Stanley McChrystal ultimately led to his resignation.

In the aftermath of such an egregious lapse in journalistic judgment, the magazine must take the most basic step on moving forward by severing its relationship with the transgressors and holding them accountable for the damage they have caused the magazine, the industry, the defamed subjects of the article, and most importantly, to rape victims on college campuses everywhere.

In fact, Rolling Stone has not made clear what steps the magazine intends to take to restore its reputation.

In an opening statement attached to the Columbia report, Mr. Dana stated that the magazine is committing “to a series of recommendations about journalistic practices spelled out” in the report, which include refraining from using pseudonyms, checking derogatory information, and confronting subjects with details.

But on a totally contradictory note, the report itself states that Mr. Dana denied there’s a need to make changes to the magazine’s editorial process.

Yet Rolling Stone’s senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems. “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 fact-checking chief, said, “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.

Say what?!?

If Rolling Stone won’t fire him, Mr. Dana should have the decency to resign.

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