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Rolling Stone retracts story on alleged UVA rape

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

  1. Rolling Stone will retract its story on an alleged gang rape at UVA after the Columbia Journalism Review and the magazine published a 12,000-word review of the article, detailing mistakes at every turn.
  2. The report, by Sheila Coronel, Steve Coll, and Derek Kravitz, describes Rolling Stone as having abandoned basic reporting principles because they believed Jackie, the alleged rape victim at the center of the article, was a credible source.
  3. Little effort was made to corroborate her story. The magazine argues this was out of sensitivity to Jackie, but the review concludes that reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely could have honored her concerns and still found discrepancies that could have prevented the story from being published.
  4. No one at Rolling Stone will be fired or disciplined, according to CNN.

The Rolling Stone article told the story of an alleged gang rape

The first paragraphs of the Rolling Stone article, "A Rape on Campus," tell the story of a freshman identified only as Jackie, who was invited on a date by "Drew," a fellow lifeguard at the campus aquatic center. After dinner, they went to a party at a fraternity house, and Jackie, who says she was sober, was raped for hours in a dark room by multiple men:

"Shut up," she heard a man's voice say as a body barreled into her, tripping her backward and sending them both crashing through a low glass table. There was a heavy person on top of her, spreading open her thighs, and another person kneeling on her hair, hands pinning down her arms, sharp shards digging into her back, and excited male voices rising all around her. When yet another hand clamped over her mouth, Jackie bit it, and the hand became a fist that punched her in the face. The men surrounding her began to laugh. For a hopeful moment Jackie wondered if this wasn't some collegiate prank. Perhaps at any second someone would flick on the lights and they'd return to the party.

"Grab its motherfucking leg," she heard a voice say. And that's when Jackie knew she was going to be raped.

Rolling Stone wasn't the first national publication to draw attention to colleges' failure at dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault, which they're required to do under federal law. The New York Times's Walt Bogandich wrote long, damning accounts of how Hobart and William Smith Colleges and Florida State failed to investigate or punish sexual assault on campus. So have the Center for Public Integrity, the Huffington Post, ESPN, BuzzFeed, and many others.

But Rolling Stone's narrative of Jackie's experience stood out for its shocking violence and for the inaction of UVA officials, who had been told about a gang rape at a fraternity house and did nothing.

The Rolling Stone article wasn't just a story about Jackie's experience but an indictment of UVA's culture, which was portrayed as indifferent to rape and more interested in partying and popularity than the interests of victims.

Rolling Stone's story appears to be completely false

After the Rolling Stone article appeared, reporters at the Washington Post began investigating the allegations. They found that Jackie might not have told the truth, and that Rolling Stone failed to thoroughly check her story — including not even attempting to contact the men accused of rape.

The Charlottesville Police Department, which investigated the alleged rape and reported its findings in March, corroborated the Post's findings on Jackie's story. Drew, the man described as Jackie's date, might not even be real.

The Columbia Journalism School investigation digs even further into the story's holes.

What Rolling Stone did wrong

The Columbia report depicts a reporting and editing process gone terribly wrong, where faith in a single source became so overpowering that it overrode the normal journalistic imperative of checking a story from every possible angle and finding as much corroboration as possible.

On one key detail — the identity of "Drew" — this was done at Jackie's explicit request. But in many other cases, the report found, Rolling Stone decided to let the article rest solely on Jackie's word even when there were other opportunities to verify what she told Erdely: "The editors made judgments about attribution, fact-checking and verification that greatly increased their risks of error but had little or nothing to do with protecting Jackie's position."

Among the things Erdely did not do:

Jackie told the writer that one of her rapists had been part of a small discussion group in her anthropology class. Erdely might have tried to verify independently that there was such a group and to identify the young man Jackie described. She might have examined Phi Kappa Psi's social media for members she could interview and for evidence of a party on the night Jackie described. Erdely might have looked for students who worked at the aquatic center and sought out clues about the lifeguard Jackie had described. Any one of these and other similar reporting paths might have led to discoveries that would have caused Rolling Stone to reconsider its plans. But three failures of reporting effort stand out. They involve basic, even routine journalistic practice - not special investigative effort. And if these reporting pathways had been followed, Rolling Stone very likely would have avoided trouble.

Erdely did not pursue those angles. Her editors did not press her on them or, after initially suggesting them, dropped their insistence that she check them out. A fact-checker noticed some problems with the story, but didn't take them to her supervisor. The magazine's managing editor and publisher, in interviews with the New York Times, insist their failure was trusting Jackie too much and wanting the best for a victim of sexual assault.

Why Rolling Stone's mistakes matter to everyone

The Columbia Journalism School report focused less on Charlottesville and more on Rolling Stone: how an explosive, criminal allegation wasn't given even cursory fact-checking before being published in a national magazine. Although Jackie told the Washington Post she tried to drop out of the article before it was published, the review found no evidence of this.

The central question in the Rolling Stone debacle — how do you trust victims of sexual assault while thoroughly investigating their stories? — matters to everyone because it's not just about journalism.

It's at the center of dealing with campus sexual assault. False rape reports, on campus and off, are rare. And while it's not clear how widespread the problem of campus sexual assault is, the best available data (which is still very flawed) suggest it's far too common.

At the same time, victims of sexual assault often face scrutiny when they come forward, with questions about what actually happened in their experience and whether an assault actually occurred.

Colleges have a tricky line to walk: they must be sensitive to the interests of sexual assault victims while ensuring that they're not rushing to judgment. While complaints by students who feel their reports of sexual assault were mishandled are far more prevalent, colleges are also facing lawsuits from students who were expelled after being found responsible for sexual assault who say they were not guilty.

The Rolling Stone controversy is part of a larger debate about how campuses should balance their responsibility to students who have experienced sexual assault with their responsibility to protect students who are accused.

The review acknowledges that this makes reporting on rape difficult, but emphasizes that journalists cannot abdicate their responsibility to verify victims' accounts: "Because questioning a victim's account can be traumatic, counselors have cautioned journalists to allow survivors some control over their own stories. This is good advice," the authors write. "Yet it does survivors no good if reporters documenting their cases avoid rigorous practices of verification. That may only subject the victim to greater scrutiny and skepticism."

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified a college where the New York Times investigated a mishandled rape allegation. It was Florida State.