How Rolling Stone's UVA rape story became a national issue

Police: 'No substantive basis' to support gang rape theory
Police: 'No substantive basis' to support gang rape theory

Rolling Stone is reeling from a report released over the weekend that may leave behind a lasting scar on its reputation.

In a matter of weeks last fall, the magazine went from publishing a bombshell allegation about a gang rape in a University of Virginia fraternity house to apologizing and retracting the article.

The four-month long controversy over what -- if anything -- happened to the woman known only as "Jackie" came to a conclusion when the Columbia Journalism School released the findings from an investigation into how Rolling Stone's reporters and editors allowed Jackie's unverified story to get into print.

Here's how we got there:

The story and the fallout:

Rolling Stone published the story, which was authored by contributing editor Sabrina Rubin Erdely, on November 19, 2014. In the piece, Jackie recalled how a night at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity in the fall of 2012 went horribly wrong. She told Erdely that she was invited to the fraternity by a junior identified in the article as "Drew." Jackie claimed she was eventually lured upstairs to a darkened room where seven men took turns raping her over the course of three hours.

The response to the Rolling Stone story was swift. Days after the story ran, UVA President Teresa Sullivan suspended all campus fraternities, and police in Charlottesville, Virginia, announced an investigation into the alleged sexual assault.

phi kappa psi
The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia

The first cracks:

In a November 27, 2014 podcast interview on Slate, Erdely conceded that she did not speak to the accused frat members, but said that she reached out to Jackie's alleged attackers "in multiple ways." "They were kind of hard to get in touch with because [the fraternity's] contact page was pretty outdated," Erdely said. She said she eventually received an email from Phi Kappa Psi's "local president" and chatted with "their national guy, who's kind of their national crisis manager."

In an interview with the Washington Post a day later, Erdely wouldn't say if she knew the names of Jackie's alleged attackers, nor would she say if she approached "Drew" for comment. Erdely claimed her reticence was out of respect for Jackie, who she said was "very fearful of these men, in particular Drew."

sabrina rubin erdely
Sabrina Erdely

Story comes under fire:

The story quickly drew skeptics. Journalist and author Richard Bradley published a blog post on November 24, 2014 , saying he didn't buy Jackie's claims. "I'm not convinced that this gang rape actually happened," Bradley wrote. "Something about this story doesn't feel right."

Bradley said his skepticism stemmed from the anonymity of the central figures in the story: the attackers, the victim's friends who purportedly discouraged her from going to the police and Jackie herself.

A week later, Reason's Robby Soave wondered if the rape story was a "gigantic hoax" and questioned Erdely's failure to contact the frat suspects. "She should be able to confirm that she knows who the attackers are, shouldn't she? Again, we don't have to know who they are, but we should know that she knows—or else the story is just one long uncorroborated accusation," Soave wrote.

Rolling Stone clarifies and defends:

On December 1, 2014 Rolling Stone deputy managing editor Sean Woods confirmed that the magazine did not talk to the alleged attackers. "We could not reach them," Woods told the Washington Post.

Nevertheless, Woods claimed that the magazine "verified their existence" through conversations with Jackie's friends and said he's "satisfied that these guys exist and are real." Erdely told the Washington Post that she "corroborated every aspect of the story that I could," though she was unable to identify the alleged attackers.

The story unravels:

On December 5, 2014, the Washington Post raised questions that the magazine was unable to answer. The newspaper published a story in which Phi Kappa Psi said it "did not have a date function or a social event during the weekend of September 28, 2012," when the rape allegedly occurred.

Some of Jackie's friends expressed doubts about her claims, telling the newspaper that her account of the attack had changed over time. Drew, it turned out, actually belonged to a different fraternity. He told the Washington Post that he never met Jackie nor had he ever taken her out on a date.

Jackie told the Washington Post that her account is true.

"It's my life. I have had to live with the fact that it happened — every day for the last two years," she said.

Rolling Stone backtracks:

Within hours of the Washington Post's report, Rolling Stone published a note to its readers saying that the magazine had "misplaced" its trust in Jackie. That characterization prompted outrage, with many accusing the magazine of blaming the victim rather than owning up to its own failures. The line was soon pulled from the note, and Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana took to Twitter to say that the "failure is on us -- not on her."

Dana said in the note that in preparing the original story, the magazine had "decided to honor [Jackie's] request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her."

Dana conceded that "new information" brought to light by the Washington Post and other news outlets highlighted "discrepancies in Jackie's account."

"We apologize to anyone who was affected by the story and we will continue to investigate the events of that evening," he wrote.

will dana tweet

Columbia steps in:

Rolling Stone turned to Columbia Journalism School in late-December to find out just what went wrong with its reporting and editing. Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner said that the magazine will publish the report as soon as Columbia completes it. The report will be released on Sunday night, and the findings will be published in both Rolling Stone and the Columbia Journalism Review.

jann wenner
Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, left, enlisted Columbia Journalism School to conduct a review of the botched story.

Police: No 'substantive basis' to support the story:

Charlottesville police announced the findings of their own investigation on March 23, saying they found no "substantive basis" to support Jackie's claim that she was raped at the Phi Kappa Psi house. Police Chief Tim Longo qualified his remarks, however. "That doesn't mean that something terrible didn't happen to Jackie," he said at a press conference.

Longo said that Jackie did not provide police with a statement during the investigation.

Phi Kappa Psi issued a statement saying that it is "exploring its legal options to address the extensive damage caused by Rolling Stone -- damage both to the chapter and its members and to the very cause upon which the magazine was focused."

Failures across-the-board:

The Columbia review was a devastating indictment of Rolling Stone, highlighting major failures on the part of Erdely and her editors.

There were three fatal mistakes detailed in the review, all of which suggest that the magazine did not do enough to corroborate Jackie's account.

Erdely apologized after the release of the Columbia review, but it appears that she and her editors will avoid the worst professional outcome. Rolling Stone said that no one will be fired over the debacle, and the Erdely will continue to write for the magazine.

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