UVA four months later: 'Rolling Stone didn't do its job'

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

Rolling Stone failed us.

That's the feeling at the University of Virginia, four months after Rolling Stone magazine published and then all but retracted a story detailing an alleged gang rape at the campus.

Now the magazine is preparing to publish an independent review by Columbia University of what went wrong in the making of the story. For UVA, that means yet another round of news coverage.

Journalism students at UVA have seen up close how a news organization can hurt a community. Professors have thought about incorporating the lessons into classes.

Perhaps most importantly, student activists are working overtime to correct persistent misperceptions about college sexual assault and support victims.

"Rolling Stone didn't do its job," said UVA student body president Abraham Axler. "And in some ways our community was responsible for the cleanup of that mistake, and that's what people are angry about."

Related: How UVA story became a national issue

The 9,000-word story, titled "A Rape on Campus," focused on the alleged gang rape of a freshman named "Jackie" in 2012. It also asserted that the university failed to meaningfully respond to the crime and connected this to systemic problems across the country.

When the article came out in late November, "everyone was affected deeply," said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a UVA media studies professor. "The vividness of the story was gut-wrenching."

But Vaidhyanathan had doubts right away because, he said, the story "demonized" administrators who were sincerely trying to improve UVA's handling of rape cases.

The writer, Sabrina Rudin Erdely, soon came under scrutiny.

"It was as if she came into the story with the plot already lined up, and she was just looking for that killer anecdote to fill in the gaps," Vaidhyanathan said.

By early December, the gang rape story had unraveled. Amid mounting doubts about some of the details in Jackie's story -- seven attackers over a period of hours -- and widespread criticism of Rolling Stone's decision not to contact the alleged rapists, the magazine apologized and said it would investigate further.

The magazine asked Columbia's graduate school of journalism to lead a review.

In March, the local police said they could find no evidence the rape had occurred, but also said it remains possible something very traumatic happened. Jackie has not spoken publicly.

Rolling Stone steps back from rape article
Rolling Stone steps back from rape article

Alex Pinkleton, a friend of Jackie's who was interviewed for the original article, said her primary disappointment is that the story's image of "such a brutal, bloody rape is what many people, including legislators, still have in their mind when they are creating new sexual assault legislation."

But "the reality of campus rape is that around 70% of sexual assaults are by an acquaintance or someone the person knows, alcohol is usually present, and it is rare (if it happens at all) to see any sort of beat down (especially one to the degree of the fabricated story)," she wrote in an email.

Experts generally agree. And the point was unfortunately reiterated at UVA earlier this week: On Friday students were alerted that a female student had reported being sexually assaulted by a male student at the end of March. The two students had previously dated.

"The university has taken immediate measures to protect the safety of the victim and is investigating the incident in accordance with Title IX and the Violence Against Women Act," a message to the UVA community said.

Vaidhyanathan said the existence of the campus-wide message is an example of the nuanced reforms that are being implemented.

On-campus activism has continued out of the national media spotlight.

"What Rolling Stone did is gave us the mandate to really work on things that needed to be worked on," said Axler, the student body president. "I think we would have gotten there eventually, but it gave us a sense of urgency. Something we had to do. In some ways, for the long term, that might be a small benefit of an otherwise horrific saga."

Axler added, "The facts of it were wrong, but it wasn't impossible to believe it. What she wrote was fiction, but it was such a believable and horrific thing, it led people to institute reforms."

Vaidhyanathan said he's planning to review the discredited story and its fallout with a class of UVA students next spring in a course called Reporting Crime and Punishment.

One obvious lesson for his journalism students has to do with necessary skepticism, he said.

"Sources, especially sources who have gone through trauma, might not tell you the truth, even if they think they are. That's a hard lesson for reporters who care about people to grasp," Vaidhyanathan said.

"So you have to be the most cynical person you can be, while still having a connection to the deep human feelings that motivate people. Making yourself into that journalist is really hard."

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