Rolling Stone Chided for Inaction on Retracted UVA Rape Story

Rolling Stone magazine drew criticism for failing to take disciplinary action against the reporter and editors responsible for its now-retracted story about a gang rape at the University of Virginia.

“If this had happened at the New York Times, the people involved would have been fired,” said Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. “The very fact that they continue to employ the reporter is astonishing to me.”

A 12,866-word review by Columbia Journalism School, released Sunday, called Rolling Stone’s Nov. 19 article “a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable.” The report prompted Rolling Stone to retract the story, “A Rape on Campus.” Journalists at media outlets including the Washington Post, Politico and the New York Times have criticized the magazine in blogs and tweets for the dearth of punishment.

In an interview with the New York Times, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner said the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, would continue to write for the magazine, and that Managing Editor Will Dana and the story’s editor, Sean Woods, would keep their jobs.

The review’s authors, Steve Coll, dean of the journalism school, and Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs, said at a news conference Monday that it wasn’t their role to decide whether the magazine should fire anyone. Coll said the review didn’t find “the kind of dishonesty -- the invention of facts, lying to colleagues, plagiarism” that would be considered “grounds for automatic firing or severe sanctions.”

‘Fabulist Storyteller’

The article detailed the alleged assault of a woman named Jackie by seven members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. The tale unraveled within two weeks after news outlets including the Washington Post challenged its credibility and criticized the magazine for not contacting the alleged assailants. Rolling Stone apologized for the story in December, citing “discrepancies” in its account and asked Columbia to do an extensive review of the reporting process.

Wenner also told the Times that Jackie, the main source for the article, was “a really expert fabulist storyteller” and “obviously there is something here that is untruthful.”

Coll said Monday that “we do disagree with any suggestion that this was Jackie’s fault.”

Kathryn Brenner, a spokeswoman for Rolling Stone, declined to comment about any calls for firings.

Dana, in a statement Sunday, apologized again to readers and said Rolling Stone would commit to “a series of recommendations about journalistic practices that are spelled out in the report.”

Key Mistakes

While Rolling Stone may have hoped the article would raise awareness about sexual assault on college campuses, “the magazine’s failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations,” according to the review.

Columbia’s review found that Erdely made three key mistakes. She didn’t give the fraternity a chance to respond to the allegations in detail before publication. She didn’t reach out to the lifeguard who allegedly orchestrated the rape or confirm he existed. Erdely also didn’t contact Jackie’s three friends who spoke with her on the night she said she was raped, the review found, calling that “the most consequential decision” the magazine made. All three friends would have spoken to the reporter had they been contacted, according to the review.

“If these reporting pathways had been followed, Rolling Stone very likely would have avoided trouble,” the review found.

‘Humbling Experience’

Erdely apologized in a statement Sunday. “Reporting on rape has unique challenges, but the journalist still has the responsibility to get it right,” she said. “Reading the Columbia account of the mistakes and misjudgments in my reporting was a brutal and humbling experience.”

Jackie’s lawyer, Palma Pustilnik, declined to comment.

“A Rape on Campus” won the award for Worst Journalism of 2014 from Columbia Journalism Review, published by the journalism school. In addition to editorial lapses, Rolling Stone was criticized for the Dec. 5 apology in which the magazine blamed its source, saying its trust in Jackie was “misplaced.”

The 9,000-word article sparked protests at the Charlottesville, Virginia-based school and became a national rallying point for sexual-assault activists. UVA suspended fraternities in the wake of the story and Phi Kappa Psi’s house was vandalized by fellow students.

Police Report

In March, Charlottesville police said they found no “substantive basis” to support the account and suspended an investigation. Police were unable to verify the existence of the attackers, and a time-stamped photograph revealed a nearly empty frat house on the night of the alleged incident.

Phi Kappa Psi called the Rolling Stone story false and defamatory and has said it’s exploring legal options to address damages caused to its chapter and members.

The review said Woods, Erdely’s editor on the story, “did not do enough” to push the reporter to address gaps in her reporting. Woods told the authors of the review he “really trusted [Erdely’s] judgment in finding Jackie credible.”

Dana, the managing editor, told the review’s authors that he “had a faith” that reporting gaps in the story were “going to be straightened out” in the fact-checking process, the report said.

Before publication, the story’s fact-checker expressed doubts about the attribution of a quote in the story. However, Rolling Stone’s head of fact-checking later said that she “had faith in everyone involved and didn’t see the need to raise any issues with the editors,” the review found.

The alleged victim in the article, Jackie, declined to respond to questions from the review’s authors. Her lawyer told Columbia “it is in her best interest to remain silent at this time.”

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