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Rolling Stone's UVA story is a scandal — but the magazine isn't treating it like one

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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.

Rolling Stone's article on an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, "A Rape On Campus," failed at the most basic task in journalism: telling the truth.

The story began with the retelling of an alleged and horrific sexual assault at a fraternity, narrated by a student referred to as Jackie. Follow-up reporting and a new Columbia Journalism School report have found it impossible to verify that the story Jackie recounted actually occurred.

Rolling Stone editors have said they made a simple mistake: they trusted Jackie too much and gave her too much deference as a survivor of sexual assault.

"Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim," Sean Woods, the article’s editor, says in the report. "We honored too many of her requests in our reporting. We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice."

But this is not a simple case of misplaced trust — it's a scandal on par with those of Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass. Rolling Stone's Sabrina Rubin Erdely and her editors published a story that could not be substantiated. Along the way, they damaged the reputations of dozens of real people.

Rolling Stone's total indifference to the truth should stand with plagiarism and fabrication as the worst kind of journalistic malpractice. But the magazine's leadership doesn't appear to take the incident seriously.

How Rolling Stone enabled fabrication

A source who tells a detailed, dramatic, and fictional story is a reporter's worst nightmare. Rolling Stone put a huge amount of trust in Jackie, assuming she had no reason to lie, and acted as if questioning her story in any way would be unseemly.

The magazine trusted Jackie so much that they did not check her story with the friends who saw her the night she said she was raped. They trusted her enough to give her alleged rapist a pseudonym without ever knowing his real name or going to much effort to find it out.

Jackie appeared to be a traumatized young woman with a dramatic and terrible story to tell. But a reporter's obligation is not to sources, no matter how grateful you are to them. It's to readers. And Rolling Stone failed completely.

The attempts to substantiate it seemed half-hearted at best. Erdely sent a two-sentence email to Phi Kappa Psi, asking if they had comments on a reported gang rape in their fraternity house. She appears to have not tried to track down the real identity of "Drew," who reportedly took Jackie on a date before bringing her to a fraternity party to be raped. In the end, Rolling Stone decided to go with the story they had, no matter how unsubstantiated.

And so Erdely depicted a fraternity as filled with rapists and their enablers; an administration as callous and unconcerned with the safety of its students; and three undergraduates as vapid, more concerned about their own popularity than their friend's trauma.

"Drew," the lifeguard who supposedly arranged Jackie's rape, might not exist, but those people all do. And they've had to deal with the fallout:

"It's completely tarnished our reputation," said Stephen Scipione, the chapter president of Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity Jackie named as the site of her alleged assault. "It's completely destroyed a semester of our lives, specifically mine. It's put us in the worst position possible in our community here, in front of our peers and in the classroom."

The university has also suffered. Rolling Stone's account linked UVA's fraternity culture to a horrendous crime and portrayed the administration as neglectful.… Allen W. Groves, the University dean of students, and Nicole Eramo, an assistant dean of students, separately wrote to the authors of this report that the story's account of their actions was inaccurate.

The cardinal sins in journalism are plagiarism and fabrication. Yet, as Erik Wemple writes at the Washington Post, they're often victimless crimes. While making things up at the New Republic, Stephen Glass created characters that played into harmful stereotypes. Jayson Blair invented reporting trips that never happened and conversations that never occurred. Both lost their jobs, as did the editors who oversaw them.

But neither Blair nor Glass accused dozens of people of being accessories after the fact to a gang rape, without evidence. No one at Rolling Stone has been fired, and the magazine has said that no one will be.

Rolling Stone doesn't plan to change its policies

The actual findings in the Columbia Journalism School report are shocking. But what's arguably even more surprising is how Rolling Stone's editors have reacted: with the verbal equivalent of a shrug.

"If this story was going to be about Jackie, I can't think of many things that we would have been able to do differently," Erdely told the Columbia investigators.

"It's not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don't think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things," Rolling Stone's managing editor, Will Dana, is quoted as saying. "We just have to do what we've always done and just make sure we don't make this mistake again."

Here's how the magazine's fact-checking chief, Coco McPherson, put it: "I 100 percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter."

These quotes make it sound like they see what happened as akin to a natural disaster — unfortunate, but unavoidable. But the report itself makes clear that it would have been entirely avoidable if the reporter and editors had relied less on trust and more on the basic principles of good reporting.

In the introduction to the Columbia report, Woods describes the report as a read that, while "painful, is, also, in its own way, a fascinating document."

For Rolling Stone's editors, this report should not be an object of fascination. It should be a disturbing wake-up call — and a reminder that they aren't the only ones who have to live with the consequences of their mistakes.

Watch: 9 facts about violence against women everyone should know

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