Scathing Report Released on Rolling Stone’s Botched UVA Rape Article

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April 5, 2015; New York Times

Rolling Stone magazine has officially issued a retraction of its article from November on a gang rape in a University of Virginia following the release of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism’s report of the writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, and the magazine’s failed journalistic practices. Readers may remember the explosive article (which Rolling Stone has deleted, but can be read here) of “Jackie’s” gang rape in a Phi Kappa Psi house, which spotlighted UVA’s response to sexual assaults and the rape culture on college campuses.

How does this story affect your work? It should bring up considerations about the importance of organizational standards and values. The degree of damage that may have been done to all involved in (and tangentially touched by) the situation is awe-inspiring. Perhaps most difficult to consider is the damage done to other women who have legitimate rape reports to make in the face of a now potentially more skeptical public.

The Columbia report, authored by Steve Coll (School of Journalism Dean), Sheila Coronel (Academic Affairs Dean), and Derek Kravitz (Columbia University research scholar), is decidedly critical of many of the reporting paths the magazine did and did not take, and some significant oversights by Erdely in particular. Compiled using 405 pages of Erdely’s notes, interviews, and other relevant material, the report indicates that the alleged victim, Jackie, declined to participate in the report.

The report identifies four major failings, some of which prompted other news outlets like Slate and the Washington Post to voice concerns about the accuracy of Jackie’s story:

1. Failure to verify the identity and existence of “Drew, the lifeguard,” the key perpetrator of the gang rape: Rolling Stone never verified the identity of the key perpetrator of the gang rape, who was also Jackie’s date to that party that night.

In the reporting, Jackie indicated she felt uncomfortable being the one to tell Erdely the full name of the individual, whom she had said worked as a lifeguard at the aquatic center. Instead, she gave Erdely an alternate avenue of finding the identity: the fraternity roster.

Erdely did not pursue this reporting path, ultimately, because she says she was afraid it would result in Jackie withdrawing her participation. However, Jackie never indicated that she would make her participation contingent on Erdely not trying to contact or identify the lifeguard. While the report does say Erdely “was very aggressive about contacting” the lifeguard,” ultimately, it was the magazine’s decision to not verify the identity but continue publishing the story anyway that is problematic.

2. The reliance of Rolling Stone and Sabrina Erdley on a single-source narrative: According to the report, the article is heavily dependent on Jackie’s version of events, many of which were not thoroughly or independently verified, if at all.

The report says:

“There were a number of ways that Erdely might have reported further, on her own, to verify what Jackie had told her. Jackie told the writer that one of her rapists had been part of a small discussion group in her anthropology class. Erdely might have tried to verify independently that there was such a group and to identify the young man Jackie described. She might have examined Phi Kappa Psi’s social media for members she could interview and for evidence of a party on the night Jackie described. Erdely might have looked for students who worked at the aquatic center and sought out clues about the lifeguard Jackie had described. Any one of these and other similar reporting paths might have led to discoveries that would have caused Rolling Stone to reconsider its plans.”

3. Failure to verify accounts of Jackie’s three friends: It is routine journalistic practice to consult a source when derogatory information will be published about him or her in order to obtain the other side of the story. This was not done in the Rolling Stone article in the case of Jackie’s three friends, to whom she spoke following the assault.

In Jackie’s narrative, immediately following the gang rape in the fraternity house, she called her three friends, Ryan Duffin, Kathryn Hendley, and Alex Stock, for help. In response to Jackie, who was “crying and crying,” two of the three friends allegedly instructed her not to report the assault for fear it might jeopardize their social status at the school. There were additional quotes included in the article that were attributed to Ryan by Jackie, but were not verified. Instead, Erdely relied solely on Jackie’s story.

However, the report finds that the three friends deny all accounts of what they were quoted as having said to Jackie in the article. The report includes remarks from Erdely, who says it was difficult to find the trio, and later there was an agreement between the reporter and the editors to leave the issue of contacting the friends alone.

4. Not divulging similarly derogatory information to the fraternity in question, Phi Kappa Psi: Erdely contacted UVA Phi Kappa Psi chapter president Stephen Scipione to comment on the gang rape allegations that had been forwarded by Jackie. As illustrated in the report and seen in the previous points, several pieces of the puzzle were missing as the article was being prepared for publication, including any independent verification of the key perpetrator of the assault.

In contacting the fraternity, according to the report, Erdely should have followed the same practice of informing the subject of the story—in this case, the UVA chapter of the fraternity—of any derogatory information that was going to be published about them. The purpose this practice is not simply to inform the individual or individuals, but also to perhaps ascertain other evidence. In this case, had Erdely been upfront about the information she had about the assault, the fraternity’s side of the story could have helped dispel or verify whether an assault had taken place as Jackie described.

A corresponding police investigation confirmed 1) there had not been a date function the date of the assault at the fraternity, and, more damning, 2) the investigation did not find any fraternity member who worked as a lifeguard at the aquatic center, where the perpetrator was allegedly working.

Yesterday, following the publication of the report, the fraternity announced it was going to pursuing legal action against the magazine.

“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 Scipione.

Numerous times, the report indicates that certain decisions were made because the reporter and editors were afraid Jackie would withdraw her cooperation for the story, including moving forward with a pseudonym for the “lifeguard” when his identity hadn’t even been verified. This push to publish the story of a trauma, verified or not, resulted in several reporting gaps being overlooked.

Most likely, the magazine knew this was an incredibly provocative, sensationalized story of a campus assault. Although the purpose was to generate important discussions about campus assaults and the issues inherent in university processes, this story unnecessarily highlights the small percentage chance of someone making a false allegation.

According to the report, “Erdely and her editors had hoped their investigation would sound an alarm about campus sexual assault and would challenge Virginia and other universities to do better. Instead, the magazine’s failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations.”

Erdely released her first statement since the story began unraveling on Sunday to apologize for the hurt the article has caused, particularly to any survivor of sexual assault who may think twice about telling their story.—Shafaq Hasan