The discredited Rolling Stone article that alleged a horrific rape at the University of Virginia, pitching the campus into turmoil for weeks, was a “journalistic failure that was avoidable,” according to a review of the magazine’s reporting by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
The magazine article described the gang rape of a student, identified only as Jackie, during a party at a fraternity house. The article’s publication in November triggered a series of responses at UVa, including a temporary suspension of all fraternity activities and the adoption of new policies for dealing with sexual violence on the campus.
But by early December, the credibility of Rolling Stone’s account was fraying as other media outlets -- including The Washington Post, Slate, and The New York Times -- noted discrepancies in Jackie’s story.
In December, Rolling Stone acknowledged those discrepancies and asked the Columbia school to conduct an external review of what had gone wrong in its editorial process.
As the findings of that review were announced on Sunday night, the magazine retracted the article, removed it from its website, and replaced it with the school’s report. It also apologized to its 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.”
The Columbia Journalism School’s review -- conducted by Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs; Steve Coll, dean of the school; and Derek Kravitz, a postgraduate research scholar -- found that the magazine had “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.”
Sabrina Erdely, the author of the magazine article, and her editors at Rolling Stone “had hoped their investigation would sound an alarm about campus sexual assault and would challenge Virginia and other universities to do better,” the Columbia reviewers’ report says. “Instead, the magazine’s failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations.”
Teresa A. Sullivan, president of UVa, amplified on that concern in a statement released Sunday night. Rolling Stone’s article “did nothing to combat sexual violence, and it damaged serious efforts to address the issue,” she wrote. “Irresponsible journalism unjustly damaged the reputations of many innocent individuals and the University of Virginia. Rolling Stone falsely accused some University of Virginia students of heinous, criminal acts, and falsely depicted others as indifferent to the suffering of their classmate. The story portrayed University staff members as manipulative and callous toward victims of sexual assault. Such false depictions reinforce the reluctance sexual assault victims already feel about reporting their experience, lest they be doubted or ignored.”
In a preface to the magazine’s publication of the Columbia school’s report, Will Dana, managing editor of Rolling Stone, wrote: “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.”
The Charlottesville, Va., police department has suspended its investigation of the assault alleged by Jackie. At a news conference last month, the police chief said that investigators had found no evidence to support Jackie’s account of a sexual assault at the time and place she described. He added, however, “That doesn’t mean that something terrible did not happen” to her that night.
The full text of the Columbia school’s report is available on the Rolling Stone’s website and on the website of the Columbia Journalism Review.