Columbia issues scathing report on 'Rolling Stone' rape story
By Roger Yu
First published in USA Today on April 6, 2015
(Photo: Steve Helber, AP)
The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism released a scathing report of the 'Rolling Stone' magazine's journalistic practices regarding an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia frat house.
The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism issued a scathing report Sunday on the editorial breakdown at Rolling Stone magazine that allowed publication of a searing, now thoroughly discredited story about a woman who said she had been gang raped at the University of Virginia, ending a three-month review meant to shed a light on and calm the storm surrounding a saga that had triggered a police probe and institutional soul searching at the university.
Rolling Stone, which had backed off from its original story in December, also officially retracted the article, titled "A Rape on Campus," and said it will implement recommendations about journalistic practices that are listed in the report.
The 13,000-word report, authored by Sheila Coronel, Steve Coll and Derek Kravitz of the Columbia J-school, concluded that the magazine's editorial policies clearly have failed in catching the reportorial shortcomings by the story's author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely.
"The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking," the authors wrote. "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. The published story glossed over the gaps in the magazine's reporting by using pseudonyms and by failing to state where important information had come from."
The magazine's owner, Wenner Media, asked the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in December to carry out an objective third-party review of its editorial process that contributed to the deeply flawed 9,000-word story. The report's authors noted that the magazine cooperated fully and allowed interviews with all the relevant parties involved, including Erdely, and the magazine's managing editor, Will Dana. Jackie didn't respond to the authors' request for an interview.
"The report was painful reading, to me personally and to all of us at Rolling Stone," Dana said in a statement released Sunday by Rolling Stone.
In November, Rolling Stone ran the story of "Jackie," an otherwise unidentified U.Va. student who says she was gang-raped at a party at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house in the fall of 2012. Her shocking story, with vivid details from the night of the incident and its charges that sexual assaults at U.Va. often go unreported, deeply embarrassed the university and triggered an investigation by school officials and local police. All Greek life activities were also suspended in the wake of the story.
Within days of the publication, commentators and media outlets, including The Washington Post, began questioning the reporting in the story, including the author's failure to locate and contact "Drew" and other men accused in the story. The fraternity also said it couldn't find any record of the party on the date documented in the story.
The Charlottesville, Va., police also launched its own investigation after the story was published, and concluded last month that "there is no substantive basis to support the account" in the story.
"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.
"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," he wrote.
The report's authors acknowledged the business realities of the shrunken magazine -- its editorial staff has contracted by about 25% since 2008 -- but concluded that a lack of resources was not a factor in the failure.
"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," they wrote.
Jann S. Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone, told The New York Times that the story represented "an isolated and unusual episode" and plans to retain Dana in his current job. Erdely also will continue to write for the magazine, Rolling Stone said.
In a statement Sunday, Erdely said the past few months "have been among the most painful of my life."
"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," Erdely wrote.
"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," she wrote.
Sean Woods, the Rolling Stone editor who edited Erdely's story, also told the report's authors that Erdely, Dana and he overly deferred to Jackie despite the red flags in her account of the night.
The report claimed that their failure went beyond their need to defer to the victim. "The magazine did not pursue important reporting paths even when Jackie had made no request that they refrain," they wrote.
Jackie was willing to give Erdely some leads for further contacts but was also an unreliable source who may have been overly relied on by the reporter, the report said.
Erdely failed to follow up on several leads that she could have pursued without Jackie's help, including an accused rapist's participation in school activities and reaching out to the fraternity members through social media.
"Any one of these and other similar reporting paths might have led to discoveries that would have caused Rolling Stone to reconsider its plans," the authors wrote.
Erdely also neglected to independently locate and interview three friends whom Jackie said she had immediately contacted after she was allegedly raped. If Erdely had reached out to the three friends, "they would have denied saying any of the words Jackie attributed to them," the report said.
"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," the authors wrote.
After Erdely reached out to a local chapter president of the fraternity for a comment, she failed to provide Jackie's account of the date of the attack, the nature of the party, or that the man who allegedly led the attack was a fraternity member who was also a lifeguard at the university aquatic center.
If the fraternity had been given more details by Erdely, it would have been better equipped to provide evidence that might have quashed the story, the report said.
The Rolling Stone fact-checker assigned to the story also relied heavily on Jackie and proceeded with the wrong assumption that "UVA believed this story to be true," the report said.
But the fact-checker pushed to verify a quote assigned to one of the three friends and talked about it with Woods and Erdely. But the fact-checker also failed to raise the issue with her boss, Coco McPherson, who heads the checking department.
"Better and clearer policies about reporting practices, pseudonyms and attribution might well have prevented the magazine's errors," the report said. "The checking department should have been more assertive about questioning editorial decisions that the story's checker justifiably doubted."
In recommendations to Rolling Stone and other media organizations, the authors urged journalists to avoid using pseudonyms if at all possible, verify derogatory information, and confront subjects -- in this case, the fraternity -- with details when seeking their comment.