Rolling Stone’s Erroneous Campus Rape Story Ripped in Scathing Independent Review

“A story of journalistic failure that was avoidable,” independent investigation finds; Rolling Stone retracts story

"A Rape on Campus" story on
Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone abdicated its journalistic responsibility and failed at almost all levels when it published its erroneous 9,000 word “A Rape on Campus” story in November, an external review published by Columbia Journalism Dean Steve Coll found on Sunday.

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

In conjunction with the review, Rolling Stone has decided to retract the story, pulling it down from its website and replacing it with the Columbia Review of its reporting, a fairly unprecedented measure in the digital media era.

“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,” the magazine’s managing editor Will Dana said Sunday.

“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,” Dana continued. “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.”

Included in the report is an apology from author Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who up until now has not commented on her reporting, particularly her failure to interview any of the male University of Virginia students accused of attacking “Jackie,” a female student who told Erdely she was gang raped at a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity party in September 2012.

“I allowed my concern for Jackie’s well-being, my fear of re-traumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts,” Erdely told The New York Times. “These are mistakes I will not make again.”

The report is a damning condemnation, criticizing almost every step of Erdely’s reporting as well as the decisions made by editors, Sean Woods and Will Dana, to allow her to report and write the story without reaching out to the accused male students and for not pressing her to fill in the gaps in her reporting.

The report comes after five months of turmoil for Rolling Stone surrounding the story, which after being published in mid-November, came under fire for gaping holes and contradictions. The Washington Post reported friends of Jackie began to doubt her account, with one saying she did not appear physically injured on the night in question.

They also found that one of the Phi Kappa Psi members Jackie accused of raping her — a university lifeguard named “Drew” — was in fact not a member of the fraternity and belonged to a different one.

The fraternity also denied Jackie’s claims that she was gang raped at their party on September 28th, 2012, saying they didn’t host “a date function or social event” that weekend. They also reviewed their roster to confirm they had no members who were lifeguards at the campus Aquatic and Fitness Center — directly debunking Jackie’s claims she was raped by a Phi Si brother who was a lifeguard on campus.

Once holes in the story emerged, Rolling Stone inserted an editor’s note in the online version of the article:

“In the face of new information reported by the Washington Post and other news outlets, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account,” managing editor Will Dana wrote at the time.

In the 12,866-word review by Columbia School of Journalism, author Steve Coll concludes Rolling Stone’s errors were entirely avoidable.

Rolling Stone’s repudiation of the main narrative in “A Rape on Campus” is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking. 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 published story glossed over the gaps in the magazine’s reporting by using pseudonyms and by failing to state where important information had come from.

Rolling Stone publisher Jann S. Wenner said the problem with the story began with its source, calling Jackie “a really expert fabulist storyteller” in an interview with The New York Times. He clarified he was not blaming the female student “but obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.”

Wenner will not discipline Erdely or the editors involved with the story.