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Rolling Stone apologizes, retracts discredited rape story

Magazine took action after Columbia University School of Journalism released a critical report of UVa gang rape story

Rolling Stone magazine failed to follow basic journalistic safeguards in publishing a now discredited story about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house, according to a review of the story by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism that was commissioned by the magazine and released on Sunday evening.

The magazine apologized and officially retracted the story on Sunday night.

“Rolling Stone’s repudiation of the main narrative in ‘A Rape on Campus’ is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable,” read the Columbia report. “The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking.”

Led by the dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, the review examined the editorial process behind the story after the reporting failed to hold up under a barrage of questions raised by media after its publication on Nov. 19, 2014.

The article, written by Sabrina Erdely, described a 2012 gang rape by seven men of a first-year female student, identified only by the pseudonym Jackie, at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house.

It also described a hidden culture of sexual violence fueled by binge drinking at one of the nation's most highly regarded public universities and accused the university of tolerating a culture that ignored sexual violence against women.

The story made national headlines and sent the U.Va. campus into a tailspin, though other news outlets, including The Washington Post, reported inconsistencies in Jackie’s story soon after the Rolling Stone article was published.

By Dec. 5, Rolling Stone apologized and acknowledged discrepancies in the article and admitted that it never sought comment from the seven men accused of the rape.

And on March 23, Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo said at a news conference that after a four-month probe, his investigators produced no evidence that the attack occurred. Jackie refused to cooperate in the police investigation.

The report was written by Steve Coll, the Columbia Journalism School’s dean; Sheila Coronel, its dean of academic affairs; and Derek Kravitz, a postgraduate research scholar at the university.

“This report was painful reading, to me personally and to all of us at Rolling Stone,” wrote Will Dana, the managing editor, on the magazine's website. 

Erdely apologized and said she "did not go far enough to verify" the story of the victim. “Reading the Columbia account of the mistakes and misjudgments in my reporting was a brutal and humbling experience,” she said in a statement.

Dana and Erdely said they were 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 people she named in her account, leaving the magazine unable to corroborate it, the report said.

The report read that Rolling Stone also failed to investigate reporting leads even when Jackie did not specifically ask 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.

It also concluded that while Rolling Stone's editorial staff has shrunk by 25 percent since 2008, the problem was not a lack of resources.

“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,” it said.

Jann Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone, on Sunday told The New York Times that while the article had flaws, the problems “started with its source.” According to the newspaper, he described her as ‘a really expert fabulist storyteller’ who managed to manipulate the magazine’s journalism process. When asked to clarify, he said that he was not trying to blame Jackie, ‘but obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.’

Wenner also told the Times that Dana would keep his job, as would the article’s editor, Sean Woods, and that Erdely would continue to write for the magazine.

Despite its errors, the Rolling Stone article heightened scrutiny of campus sexual assaults amid a campaign by President Barack Obama. The University of Virginia was already on the Department of Education's list of colleges under investigation for their handling of sex assaults. 

Within the last few years, students at colleges across the country — including high-profile schools like Yale, Harvard, Columbia, the University of North Carolina, UCLA and U.C. Berkeley — have filed federal complaints alleging that their schools have violated the Clery Act, which calls for schools to accurately report statistics about on-campus crimes to the government, and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits sex discrimination in any school-related activity that receives federal funding.

And as the Columbia report said, “The collapse of  ‘A Rape on Campus’ does not involve the kinds of fabrication by reporters that have occurred in some other infamous cases of journalistic meltdown. In 2003, The New York Times reporter Jayson Blair resigned after editors concluded that he had invented stories from whole cloth. In February, NBC News suspended anchor Brian Williams after he admitted that he told tall tales about his wartime reporting in Iraq. There is no evidence in Erdely’s materials or from interviews with her subjects that she invented facts; the problem was that she relied on what Jackie told her without vetting its accuracy.”

The article prompted U.Va. President Teresa Sullivan to suspend fraternity and sorority social events. Fraternities later agreed to ban kegs, hire security workers and keep at least three fraternity members sober at each event.

On Sunday, Sullivan said in a statement that 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.

The fraternity has called the 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, the president of the Virginia Alpha chapter of Phi Kappa Psi, after the Charlottesville police suspended its investigation.

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