Three fatal failures in Rolling Stone's UVA rape story

Can Rolling Stone restore its credibility?
Can Rolling Stone restore its credibility?

It has been clear for months that Rolling Stone committed journalistic malpractice in its discredited story about an alleged sexual assault at the University of Virginia. Sunday night brought additional details on the magazine's failures.

In its three-month review, Columbia Journalism School identified multiple instances where Rolling Stone's Sabrina Rubin Erdely and her editors could have avoided the calamities that ultimately forced the magazine to retract "A Rape on Campus," a story about a woman identified only as "Jackie" who claimed to have been gang raped at UVA's Phi Kappa Psi frat house.

Time after time, the review found, Erdely and her colleagues neglected to take steps that might have led the magazine to reconsider the story altogether. Here are three of those failures.

1) Erdely fails to corroborate the story with Jackie's friends: In Erdely's story, which was published on November 19, Jackie recalled reaching out to three friends after the alleged rape occurred.

But Erdely did not do enough to track them down.

"It should have been possible for Erdely to identify the trio independently," the review concluded.

Most damningly, Columbia Journalism School found that all "three friends would have spoken to Erdely, they said, if they had been contacted." The friends would also "have denied saying any of the words Jackie attributed to them."

Erdely expressed surprise that her editors didn't push her harder to reach out to the three friends.

Rolling Stone deputy managing editor Sean Woods, who edited Erdely's story, had a different recollection. Woods said he asked Erdely to reach out to the friends, but she said that she couldn't. When Woods asked "repeatedly" if they were reachable, Erdely said no. Woods said he stood down at that point because he "felt we had enough."

"That was the reporting path, if taken, that would have almost certainly led the magazine's editors to change plans," according to the Columbia report.

2) Erdely was vague and withholding when she reached out to the fraternity: The review found that Erdely fell short in her efforts to get Phi Kappa Psi's side of the story.

If Rolling Stone "had given the fraternity a chance to review the allegations in detail," the review said, Erdely and her editors might have attempted to "verify Jackie's account more thoroughly."

Although Erdely might have had reason to fear the fraternity preempting her story, the review said it is "risky for a journalist to withhold detailed derogatory information from any subject before publication."

After the story was published, the fraternity reviewed its records, and found that it did not host an official function the night Jackie said she was raped.

3) Erdely and her editors abandoned their pursuit of the alleged assailants: Jackie, the review found, "proved to be a challenging source," and she was particularly evasive when Erdely tried to find out more about the lifeguard who allegedly organized the frat house assault. When Erdely asked for his name, Jackie refused, saying she still lived in fear of him.

In subsequent interviews after the story was published, Erdely herself would cite this as a reason for why she didn't contact the alleged assailants.

But while Jackie refused to divulge the last name of the alleged ringleader, she did suggest that Erdely find him through the fraternity's roster. After Jackie went incommunicado for two weeks, Erdely and her editors hatched a "solution."

The reporter left a message for Jackie, assuring her that the magazine would not contact the lifeguard after all. Instead, he would be identified by a pseudonym, Drew. Jackie "called back quickly" and Erdely recalled that she suddenly "chatted freely about the lifeguard, still without using his last name."

In December, the Washington Post delivered a massive blow to Erdely's story when it found that a UVA student matching Drew's description was not a member of Phi Psi and denied ever having met Jackie in person.


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