What went wrong with Rolling Stone's campus rape story

by Laura Edghill
Posted 4/07/15, 03:25 pm

Rolling Stone magazine has officially retracted its November 2014 article about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia (UVA) fraternity party. The admission comes after a months-long independent review by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Rolling Stone requested the outside review in response to criticism of the veracity of the article.

The original article told the story of “Jackie,” a UVA student who claimed she endured a brutal sexual assault as part of a hazing ritual at a fraternity house party. The article graphically detailed Jackie’s rape account. It also portrayed Jackie as a scared trauma survivor, unwilling to seek help for fear of being cast out socially or having to confront the perpetrators. The story depicted both the fraternity and university officials as unresponsive and uncaring.

Almost immediately after publication, critics decried the article’s reliance on pseudonyms and lack of fact-checking. The fraternity in question, Phi Kappa Psi, responded claiming there was no event held at the fraternity house on the night Jackie said she was assaulted. The university also defended itself, citing Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) constraints on their ability to discuss details of student issues with the media.

Less than three weeks after the article ran, Rolling Stone published an editor’s note on its website that cast doubt on the reliability of Jackie’s testimony. A fresh wave of public criticism ensued, fueled by a Washington Post article that questioned key details in the story as well as Rolling Stone’s reporting process. Critics accused Rolling Stone of creating the impression that the alleged victim was a liar. The resulting public-relations mess prompted Rolling Stone managing editor, Will Dana, to reach out to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to request an independent review of the article and of Rolling Stone’s process.

The Columbia report is at times scathing and sobering, calling the situation a “story of journalistic failure that was avoidable.” The report describes numerous flaws in the article’s reporting, editing, and fact-checking. For example, author Sabrina Erdely did not give Phi Kappa Psi a chance to respond to the specific allegations Jackie made against its members. Erdely also abandoned her effort to confront one of Jackie’s supposed abusers after Jackie protested. The report cites abundant points along the path to publication where simple journalistic and editorial prudence should have caught inconsistencies.

After Columbia released its report, the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the UVA announced it planned to pursue “all available legal action” against Rolling Stone for the article. The fraternity said the article clearly defamed its members, but did not say when it planned to file suit.

“It’s been an extraordinarily painful and humbling experience,” said Erdely’s principal story editor, Sean Woods, in the Columbia report. “I’ve learned that even the most trusted and experienced people—including, and maybe especially, myself—can make grave errors in judgment.”

In addition to the Columbia report, local police have now concluded there is no evidence to support Jackie’s claims regarding her rape at the fraternity house.

The Columbia report concedes that rape and other violent sexual crimes present unique challenges for reporters. Many potential pitfalls lurk: the victim’s fear of coming forward, the effects of trauma itself, and the danger of becoming too emotionally attached to the victim. Balancing the need for verification with sensitivity to the victim’s often-fragile state is tricky for the most seasoned professionals. When dealing with incidents on campus, additional layers of complexity emerge from FERPA and other federal and state-level laws that require colleges and universities to be exceedingly cautious when handling student privacy concerns.

In an editor’s note prefacing the full Columbia report, managing editor Dana apologized to the organizations involved and expressed regret for the damage done. “Sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses, and it is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward,” he said. “It saddens us to think that their willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Laura Edghill

Laura is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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