Rolling Stone Officially Retracts University of Virginia Rape Story
In December 2014, Rolling Stone admitted to having misplaced their trust in the source for their scathing article, “A Rape on Campus,” which explored the pervasive rape culture of American universities, primarily through the struggle of one student at the University of Virginia. However, the publication is only now issuing a full retraction, and they’re doing it in a way that essentially throws their own editorial staff under the bus.
Rolling Stone reached out to Steve Coll, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and current dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, to investigate what went wrong with their reporting. Coll and his team were given full freedom to take as much time as necessary, with the guarantee that whatever they wrote, no matter how damaging to Rolling Stone, would still be published.
Written by Sabrina Erdely, the original “A Rape On Campus” story centered on the gang-rape of a woman identified only as “Jackie”, who claimed to have been gang-raped by members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity as part of an initiation rite. This allegedly took place at a house party on September 28, 2012. However, upon the article’s publication in December 2014, discrepancies surfaced in Jackie’s story, from the actual date of the incident, to just what happened in the aftermath of her alleged attack. For one, Jackie made up an extensive story about being comforted by three friends after the incident. In her recollection, one friend wanted her to go to the hospital, while the other two wanted her to avoid reporting for fear of what it’d do to their social lives at UVA. Naturally, the subsequent investigation by Coll and company revealed that the entire exchange was a fabrication. Furthermore, they illustrated that Rolling Stone could easily have verified this themselves had they done their due diligence and attempted to contact the three friends directly.
But the discrepancies didn’t end there: Phi Kappa Psi didn’t even have a party on September 28, 2012. Moreover, the mysterious “Drew,” a lifeguard whom Jackie claimed was the organizer of her rape, didn’t appear to exist. Worse, Coll’s investigation revealed that Erdely didn’t exactly do her due diligence in trying to get to the bottom of the perpetrator’s identity, as Erdely and her editors frequently acquiesced to Jackie’s requests not to pursue the matter further. They even ignored the legitimate concerns of fact-checkers on the story, believing that by scrutinizing Jackie’s story, they would run the risk of re-traumatizing her. In essence, Coll’s report is a story of journalistic failure at every level.
“This report was painful reading, to me personally and to all of us at Rolling Stone,” said managing editor Will Dana, in his preamble to the report. “It is also, in its own way, a fascinating document — a piece of journalism, as Coll describes it, about a failure of journalism. With its publication, we are officially retracting ‘A Rape on Campus.’ We are also committing ourselves to a series of recommendations about journalistic practices that are spelled out in the report. 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. 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.”
It really is one of the most fascinating reports on journalism I’ve read, and it’s also an abject lesson in why journalism puts such stringent rules in place. Jackie’s story is one that could have easily been discounted if Erdely and company had been more thorough. This report is scathing, and reads as a fairly strong indictment of Rolling Stone’s practices on this story. It’s an embarrassment, but one they earned wholeheartedly by not doing the necessary legwork in verifying that what Jackie was saying was true. Even a rudimentary level of scrutiny might have unraveled Jackie’s entire story, but what resulted was a case of confirmation bias. Erdely went looking for a story that would fit in the rape culture narrative she wanted to explore, found a fantastical account that could anchor her thinkpiece, and overlooked deficiencies in the account in order to both prevent Jackie from withdrawing cooperation, and to keep this potentially viral story alive.
It’s going to take a lot of Rolling Stone to regain whatever trust it had with its audience, considering this piece represents the sort of journalistic lapse that speaks to deeper issues with the magazine’s processes. But I don’t think it’s impossible for Rolling Stone to put this mess behind them. It’s just not going to be easy.
Read Coll’s full report on Rolling Stone’s failure with the “A Rape On Campus” article HERE.