On April 5, the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism reported on the failings of the Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus.” The journalism school’s dean and his colleagues investigated each point in the reporting, editing and fact-checking processes for the story, which depicted a sexual assault at a UVA fraternity of a woman the Rolling Stone called “Jackie.”
The report concentrated on three major failures to follow “basic, even routine journalistic practice” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely. First, she did not seek to find the three friends Jackie described unflatteringly. “Journalistic practice—and basic fairness—require that if a reporter intends to publish derogatory information about anyone, he or she should seek that person’s side of the story,” the report reads. Had Erdely contacted the friends, she’d have heard at least one contradictory account of the conversations relayed to her by Jackie. Erdely has said that would have made her change course.
Second, Erdely did not give Phi Kappa Psi, where the assault was alleged to have taken place, enough of a chance to review and respond to Jackie’s full allegations; had she done so, fraternity officials might have been able to point out enough discrepancies in the account to give Erdely and her editors enough pause to consider verifying the story more rigorously.
Third, Erdely never located the student Jackie said orchestrated her sexual assault—a lifeguard named Drew who worked with her, she said. There was a person named Drew at the aquatic center where Jackie worked, but he did not belong to Phi Kappa Psi, as she had said, and police have found no evidence linking him to Jackie’s assault.
Erdely’s primary editor, Sean Woods, and Rolling Stone’s managing editor, Will Dana, also failed, the report states. “Investigative reporters working on difficult, emotive or contentious stories often have blind spots,” it says. “It is up to their editors to insist on more phone calls, more travel, more time, until the reporting is complete. Woods did not do enough.”
Dana has said, “It’s on me. I’m responsible.”
For its part, Rolling Stone used the report to officially retract its story, more than four months after it was published.
UVA President Teresa Sullivan released a statement following the report’s publication, stating in part: “Rolling Stone’s story, ‘A Rape on Campus,’ did nothing to combat sexual violence, and it damaged serious efforts to address the issue. Irresponsible journalism unjustly damaged the reputations of many innocent individuals and the University of Virginia. Rolling Stone falsely accused some University of Virginia students of heinous, criminal acts, and falsely depicted others as indifferent to the suffering of their classmate. The story portrayed University staff members as manipulative and callous toward victims of sexual assault. Such false depictions reinforce the reluctance sexual assault victims already feel about reporting their experience, lest they be doubted or ignored.”
Later in April, Assistant Dean of Students Nicole Eramo (Col ’97, Educ ’03, ’10) sent Rolling Stone a four-page open letter in which she assailed both the article’s “false and grossly misleading portrayal of the counseling and support” she provided to Jackie, as well as Rolling Stone’s actions leading up to and following the retraction.
“Rolling Stone’s recent actions are too little, too late,” Eramo (Col ’97, Educ ’03, ’10) writes. “Although the magazine has finally removed the article from Rolling Stone’s website (something we asked for months ago), my name—and the photo-shopped picture of me—remain forever linked to an article that has damaged my reputation and falsely portrayed the work to which I have dedicated my life. And although Rolling Stone has finally issued an apology of sorts (something we also asked for months ago), that half-hearted generalized apology (which did not apologize to anyone by name, including me) seems insincere. Rolling Stone has refused to hold anyone accountable, and the so-called apology came only after the Columbia Journalism Review issued its report criticizing the magazine’s reporting, which suggests that the magazine is more interested in currying favor with its friends in the media than truly making amends with those of us who have been hurt.”
To read more about the University’s response to sexual assault, see “Sexual Assault and UVA” from the spring 2015 issue of UVA Magazine.