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Rolling Stone's Mistaken Story of a Rape 'Was Avoidable'

FILE - In this Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, file photo, University of Virginia students walk to campus past the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. Rolling Stone retracted a story of sexual attack at the fraternity. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
Rolling Stone's Report on a Rape Case 'Was Avoidable'
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In December of last year, a well-known American magazine retracted a major story. The story reported on a sexual attack at the University of Virginia. A student identified as “Jackie” told the reporter a group of students raped her at a fraternity party in 2012. But the magazine later said the story was not true.

Reactions to the rape story

The story was called “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA.” Rolling Stone magazine published it in November 2014. Reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely wrote the report.

It received a lot of interest. Other magazines, newspapers and blogs followed with more stories about sexual attacks. The media also discussed other issues related to the report, such as alcohol abuse at colleges and social pressure from student groups. Women’s groups and others protested against the actions the report described.

Following the Rolling Stone report, Teresa Sullivan, the president of University of Virginia, suspended all activities on campus related to fraternities and sororities. And, she asked the police department to investigate the rape incident.

But within a week of the report’s publication, Richard Bradley, an author and an editor, raised a question: is the Rolling Stone story true? He asked why the reporter did not interview the victim’s friends or the accused rapists.

On December 5, The Washington Post raised more questions about the story. The Post said there was no party on the day of the reported sexual attack, and even Jackie’s friends questioned her story.

Rolling Stone asked CJR to review the story

Publications rarely retract a story; admitting a story is false can seriously damage a publication’s reputation. Rolling Stone owner Jann Wenner wanted to learn what mistakes were made in reporting and publishing the story and how to avoid them in the future. So, he asked experts at the Columbia Journalism Review, or CJR, to investigate.

“Rolling Stone’s Investigation: A Failure That Was Avoidable” was released April 5. Columbia journalism professor Sheila Coronel wrote the piece along with Steve Coll, the Dean of the school’s journalism department, and Derek Kravitz, a researcher at Columbia Journalism School.

What did CJR find?

The investigators’ findings were simple. They wrote that the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, made one major mistake. She based her whole story on information from a single person, the woman who said she was raped.

The CJR report noted that Ms. Erdely wrote about three friends of Jackie. She described the conversation the four shared on the night of the reported attack. Ms. Erdely used false names for the friends but did not identify them as false. Ms. Erdely also failed to explain that the description of the conversation came from Jackie only. Ms. Erdely did not contact the friends to confirm the conversation or learn anything else they might offer.

Ms. Erdely also never learned the identity of a single suspected attacker.

However, she did partly identify the reported attackers as members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. Ms. Erdely wrote that the attack took place during a party at the fraternity’s house on campus. And, Ms. Erdely did seek a comment from the fraternity.

But the CJR report says the reporter provided the fraternity very little information about Jackie’s claims or any details of the story. As a result, the fraternity was not able to provide very helpful information.

The Columbia Journalism Review investigation did not blame just Sabrina Rubin Erdely for the story. It also said the editors involved in “A Rape on Campus” failed. It said the editors did not urge Ms. Erdely to seek confirmation of Jackie’s story. It said they should have demanded that she get more sources. And, finally, the investigators wrote that the editors should have blocked publication of the story.

Sympathetic feelings lead to a bad result

Why did a good reporter make such basic mistakes? Ms. Erdely told the CJR team that she became too sensitive, or sympathetic, to the subject of her story. She said she believed Jackie’s story. She said Jackie was unwilling to provide names and claimed to be frightened for her life.

But Ms. Erdely also said she was worried Jackie would withdraw from the story if Ms. Erdely asked too much for additional information.

CJR’s Sheila Coronel said that concern was a major failing on Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s part. Journalists have to be able to break with a subject if they cannot responsibly report on it.

Police release their findings

Last month, police ended their investigation of the reported rape. They said they did not find any evidence of an attack at the fraternity house, nor of a party on the day claimed in the report, nor of a member described as the leader of the attack.

Phi Kappa Psi fraternity says it will take legal action against Rolling Stone for what it calls “reckless” – or, irresponsible – reporting. A fraternity statement also says the group worries that the whole incident might lead some rape victims to fear reporting real attacks.

Like the original piece, “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” the CJR investigation has led to much public discussion. This time the subject is journalism and the responsibility it carries.

I'm Caty Weaver.
I’m Jim Tedder.

Caty Weaver wrote this report. Hai Do and Kelly Jean Kelly were the editors.

Editor's Note: The Rolling Stone article was published in November 2014. A previous version incorrectly stated the year as 2015.


Words in This Story

retractedv. said something you said or wrote is not true or correct

fraternityn. an organization of male students at a U.S. college

sororityn. an organization of female students at a U.S. college

confirmationn. proof which shows that something is true or correct

sensitiveadj. aware of and understanding the feelings of other people