How did Rolling Stone get a rape story so wrong?

Updated

Rolling Stone magazine has retracted its explosive story, “A Rape on Campus,” and the writer of the story has apologized, on the heels of a Columbia Journalism School report on the magazine’s missteps. 

The report, which was commissioned by Rolling Stone after its high-profile account of a gang rape began to fall apart, deemed the story a “journalistic failure that was avoidable.” The authors of the report, including its dean, Steve Coll, and academic dean Sheila Coronel, will hold a press conference on Monday at noon detailing their findings.

Those findings include not any particular reporting agreement made with “Jackie,” as the alleged victim was referred to in the story, but rather that the author of the story, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, and her editors failed to observe basic journalistic rules in reporting out the story, which ultimately rested on a single source – Jackie herself. 

Throughout the course of reporting the story, both the reporter and the editors cut corners on basic processes they were meant to follow, the report found. This included contacting people whose actions and statements played a key role in the story – which might have led them to realize Jackie wasn’t as reliable as they believed – and when they did contact people implicated in the story, not laying out clearly what was being reported. The story was factchecked, which included the factchecker spending four hours on the phone with Jackie. ”She was describing the scene for me in a very vivid way,” the checker, who is not named because she did not have decision-making responsibilities, told the Columbia team. “I did not have doubt.”

Erdely, wrote in a statement that reading the report’s findings “was a brutal and humbling experience.” Erdely extended her apology to the University of Virginia, “and to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.”

“I want to offer my deepest apologies to … any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.”
Sabrina Rubin Erdely
Rolling Stone also issued an apology Sunday evening, declaring the publication will be “committing ourselves to a series of recommendations about journalistic practices that are spelled out in the report.” The statement continued: “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.”

The magazine’s publisher, Jann Wenner, told the New York Times that no editors would lose their jobs, and that Erdely would continue to write for the magazine.  

Rolling Stone did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“A Rape on Campus,” published in November 2013, told the story of an innocent freshman who was sexually tortured by a group of frat brothers, after which she was shamed and ridiculed by her friends. It portrayed a university environment where sexual impunity reigned. 

Related: Police say ‘Rolling Stone’ rape account unsubstantiated

But after other reporters began raising questions about the appalling story Erdely recounted, including her lack of clarity over whether she contacted the accused or the friends, the magazine issued a statement appearing to back away from the story. Still, the editors defended their apparent decision not to verify details of the ordeal Jackie described, saying it was “trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault.” 

The magazine’s editors have on several occasions struggled to set the right tone in discussing a piece that was about a culture of victim-blaming without appearing to blame a possible victim themselves. In its first statement, Rolling Stone said of Jackie, “our trust in her was misplaced,” which editor Will Dana later backed away from on Twitter. Speaking toTimes after the report’s release, Wenner described Jackie as manipulative and “a really expert fabulist storyteller” but then said didn’t intend to put the blame on her. Still, he said to the Times, “obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.”

After a lengthy investigation, on March 23, the Charlottesville Police Department announced it could not substantiate the claims made in the story. Chief of police Timothy Longo said there was no evidence of many of the claims in the story, but that he would not close, but rather suspend the investigation.  “I’m not convinced that something terrible didn’t happen to that young lady that night,” Longo said then. But the “young lady” in question had declined to speak with the police.

“Sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses, and it is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward.”
Rolling Stone

The University of Virginia, initially in an uproar over the article’s revelations, has moved forward on reforms, including a new agreement with fraternities and sororities and an attempt to tamp down alcohol consumption. But since the Rolling Stone article began to publicly unravel, university officials have explicitly pushed back on the article’s premise that UVA is the apotheosis of rape culture. 

“Rolling Stone’s story, “A Rape on Campus,” did nothing to combat sexual violence, and it damaged serious efforts to address the issue. Irresponsible journalism unjustly damaged the reputations of many innocent individuals and the University of Virginia,” the University’s president, Teresa Sullivan, said in a statement Sunday evening.

Rolling Stone falsely accused some University of Virginia students of heinous, criminal acts, and falsely depicted others as indifferent to the suffering of their classmate. The story portrayed University staff members as manipulative and callous toward victims of sexual assault. Such false depictions reinforce the reluctance sexual assault victims already feel about reporting their experience, lest they be doubted or ignored,” Sullivan added. 

But the report on Rolling Stone won’t end a still-simmering debate over how universities, the federal government, and law enforcement should handle sexual violence on college campuses. Nor is it expected to make it any easier for victims to come forward. 

Sexual Assault and University of Virginia

How did Rolling Stone get a rape story so wrong?

Updated