Rolling Stone magazine published the results of the Columbia Journalism Review’s investigationinto Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s November article “A Rape On Campus” and issued an official retraction of the story on Sunday night.
“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,” Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana said of the retraction.
The completed CJR review, written by Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll, Assistant Dean Sheila Coronel, and Derek Kavitz, confirmed much of what came to light in the weeks following the article’s publication. Erdley and her editors committed what the review calls “journalistic failure”, neglecting basic journalistic duties like fact-checking.
The review finds that Erdley failed to verify many aspects of the story, such as the name of victim “Jackie”’s alleged assailant. She also did not check with the individuals who Jackie claimed she was with that night, did not take steps to confirm that Phi Kappa Psi had a party on the night in question, and, more generally, decided to trust Jackie’s narrative instead of corroborating her story with facts.
“The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all,” the review stated.
Erdley and her editors had said previously that their failures were due to their desire to protect Jackie’s privacy as a victim and to respect her concerns, a sensitivity that they have since said proved to be their biggest error.
“Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” Sean Woods, the principal editor of the story, said in the review. “We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”
Jackie declined to make any comment in contribution to the report.
In addition to outlining to outlining the journalistic failures made by Rolling Stone, the review also detailed many of the article’s repercussions. One of the most concerning consequences is the potential effect that it will have on future victims of sexual assault, the review said.
“Erdley 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,” the review read. “Instead, the magazine’s failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations.”
University President Teresa Sullivan voiced similar concerns in a statement issued late Sunday night.
“Rolling Stone’s story, ‘A Rape on Campus,’ did nothing to combat sexual violence, and it damaged serious efforts to address the issue,” Sullivan’s statement read. “Such false depictions reinforce the reluctance sexual assault victims already feel about reporting their experience, lest they be doubted or ignored.”
Sullivan also called attention to other negative consequences of the article.
“Irresponsible journalism unjustly damaged the reputations of many innocent individuals and the University of Virginia,” she said.
One such individual was Phi Psi President Stephen Scipione, who gave voice to the fraternity’s struggles in CJR’s review.
“It’s completely tarnished our reputation,” he said. “It’s completely destroyed a semester of our lives.”
Despite the extensive harm caused by the article’s publication, Rolling Stone’s senior editors do not feel that their editorial systems need to change, the review said, although it’s authors disagree with this sentiment.
“Better and clearer policies about reporting practices, pseudonyms and attribution might well have prevented the magazine’s errors,” the review said.