Rolling Stone magazine retracted a widely discredited article about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia after a top journalism school issued a scathing report Sunday concluding it had failed to meet proper journalistic standards.
The review, undertaken at Rolling Stone’s request, presented a broad indictment of the magazine’s handling of a story that had horrified readers, unleashed widespread protests at the university’s Charlottesville campus and sparked a national discussion about sexual assaults on college campuses.
The way the magazine reported, edited and vetted the article is a “story of journalistic failure that was avoidable,” the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism said in the report. The criticism came two weeks after the Charlottesville police department said it had found no evidence to back the claims of the victim identified in the story only as “Jackie,” who said she was raped by seven men at a fraternity house.
Rolling Stone’s “failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking,” said the journalism school’s report, which was posted on the school’s and magazine’s websites.
Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana posted an apology on the publication’s website and said the magazine was officially retracting the story.
The article’s author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, also apologized in a statement, saying she would not repeat the mistakes she made when writing the November 2014 article “A Rape on Campus.”
“Reading the Columbia account of the mistakes and misjudgments in my reporting was a brutal and humbling experience,” she said.
The magazine’s publisher, Jann S. Wenner, however, told The New York Times that Erdely would continue to write for the magazine and that neither her editor nor Dana would be fired.
The university’s president issued a statement accusing Rolling Stone of “irresponsible journalism.”
Rolling Stone had asked for the independent review after numerous news media outlets found flaws with the story about Jackie, who said the attack happened during a social event at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house more than two years earlier. The article quoted Jackie as saying that the attack was orchestrated by a fraternity member who worked with her at the school’s aquatic center.
She also said she immediately told three friends about the attack, but she said they were generally unsupportive, and that at least two encouraged her to keep quiet to protect their social standing.
The report found three major flaws in the magazine’s reporting methodology: that Erdely did not try to contact the three friends, instead taking Jackie’s word for it that one of them refused to talk; that she failed to give enough details of the alleged assault when she contacted the fraternity for comment, which made it difficult for the organization to investigate; and that Rolling Stone did not try hard enough to find the person Jackie accused of orchestrating the assault.
If the fraternity had had more information, it might have been able to explain earlier that it did not hold a social function the night of the attack and that none of its members worked at the aquatic center, the report noted.
Soon after the article was published, several news media organizations began finding flaws with it, forcing Rolling Stone to acknowledge on Dec. 5 that there were some discrepancies with the story.
Dana and Erdely said they had been too accommodating of requests from Jackie that limited their ability to report the story because she said she was a rape victim and asked them not to contact others to corroborate, the report said.
However, Columbia’s report said, Rolling Stone also failed to investigate reporting leads even when Jackie had not specifically asked them not to.
“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,” it said.
The report said Rolling Stone’s article may cast doubt on future accusations of rape. It also damaged the reputation of the Phi Kappa Psi chapter at U.Va. and depicted the university administration as neglectful.
Prior to the issuance of the journalism school’s report, the fraternity called the Rolling Stone article defamatory and said it was exploring its legal options.
“These false accusations have been extremely damaging to our entire organization, but we can only begin to imagine the setback this must have dealt to survivors of sexual assault,” said Stephen Scipione, president of the Virginia Alpha Chapter of Phi Kappa Psi, after the Charlottesville police suspended their investigation.
In her statement, U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan said the magazine article hurt efforts to fight sexual violence, tarred the reputation of the school, and falsely accused some students “of heinous, criminal acts and falsely depicted others as indifferent to the suffering of their classmate.” The story falsely depicted the university as callous toward sexual assault victims, reinforcing their reluctance to come forward, she said.
In his apology, Dana said that magazine officials are “committing ourselves to a series of recommendations about journalistic practices that are spelled out in the report.”
Wenner took a combative tone, saying that despite the magazine’s failures, Jackie was also responsible.
Wenner told the Times that Jackie was “a really expert fabulist storyteller.” He added he was not trying to blame her “but obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.”
Despite its flaws, the article heightened scrutiny of campus sexual assaults amid a campaign by President Barack Obama. The University of Virginia had already been on the Department of Education’s list of 55 colleges under investigation for their handling of sex assault violations.
The article also prompted Sullivan to temporarily suspend Greek social events. Fraternities later agreed to ban kegs, hire security workers and keep at least three fraternity members sober at each event.