Rolling Stone retracts rape report, apologizes after ‘painful’ review – Los Angeles Times

Rolling Stone magazine retracted its controversial story about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia after an independent review by Columbia University deemed it a “failure of journalism,” the magazine’s managing editor said Sunday.

“The report was painful reading, to me personally and to all of us at Rolling Stone,” Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana said in an editor’s note appended to the outside review published on Rolling Stone’s website, and cross-published on the website of the Columbia Journalism Review magazine. “It is also, in its own way, a fascinating document – a piece of journalism … about a failure of journalism.”

The authors of Columbia University’s investigation called Rolling Stone’s article and what happened after its publication “a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable.”

 “The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking,” Columbia’s authors wrote. “The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all.”

Jackie was the pseudonym Rolling Stone used for the alleged rape victim. 

Despite the devastating CJR report, a spokeswoman for Rolling Stone confirmed to the Los Angeles Times that the editors handling the story would not lose their jobs and that its author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, would continue to write for the magazine as a contributing editor. 

The Columbia authors wrote that Rolling Stone saw no need to change any of its journalistic practices. 

The authors of the Columbia University report were Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs at Columbia Journalism School; Steve Coll, dean of Columbia Journalism School; and Derek Kravitz, a postgraduate research scholar at Columbia Journalism School.

Rolling Stone requested the probe after news reports raised doubts about the accuracy of Erdely’s explosive Nov. 19 article, “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA.” 

The story shook the University of Virginia, where officials swiftly suspended fraternity activities and asked local police to investigate the allegations.

Erdely issued an apology Sunday, calling the past few months “among the most painful of my life. Reading the Columbia account of the mistakes and misjudgments in my reporting was a brutal and humbling experience.”

She apologized “to Rolling Stone’s readers, to my Rolling Stone editors and colleagues, to the UVA community, and to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.”

The Columbia authors concluded that Erdely might have discovered discrepancies in Jackie’s stories if she had pressed harder in her reporting and worked to corroborate basic facts Jackie had given in her account of the incident. For instance, Erdely did not provide the accused fraternity with the date of Jackie’s alleged rape, at which point the fraternity might have told the reporter that no social event had happened on that date, contrary to Jackie’s contention.

Instead, they wrote in CJR, Erdely relied heavily on Jackie’s version of events even as Jackie was sometimes skittish about continuing to provide her cooperation for the story.

In one interview outlined in CJR, Jackie balked when Erdely asked for the last name of “Drew,” the lifeguard Jackie accused of organizing her rape.

 “I’m not going to use his name in the article, but I have to do my due diligence anyway,” Erdely told Jackie, according to the Columbia authors’ recounting of Erdely’s notes. “I imagine he’s going to say nothing, but it’s something I need to do.”

 “I don’t want to give his last name,” Jackie said. “I don’t even want to get him involved in this. … He completely terrifies me. I’ve never been so scared of a person in my entire life, and I’ve never wanted to tell anybody his last name. … I guess part of me was thinking that he’d never even know about the article.”

“Of course he’s going to know about the article,” Erdely said. “He’s going to read it. He probably knows about the article already.”

Jackie, sounding “shocked,” responded, “I don’t want to be the one to give you the name.”

After that, Jackie stopped responding to messages for two weeks, according to the CJR report, ultimately leading Rolling Stone to win her back by agreeing to use a pseudonym for her attacker.

“From that point on, through the story’s publication, Jackie cooperated,” the CJR report says.

The Columbia investigators concluded that, “If Jackie was attacked and, if so, by whom, cannot be established definitively from the evidence available.”

The original Rolling Stone narrative told the story of “Jackie,” who said she was gang raped during a social function at a fraternity. The story was published at a time of rising national concern over the prevalence of sexual assaults on college campuses, and the initial public reaction was one of revulsion and outrage, not skepticism.

The Rolling Stone story shook the University of Virginia, where officials swiftly suspended fraternity activities and asked local police to investigate the allegations.

The magazine’s dramatic narrative relied heavily on the account of Jackie, a freshman and “a chatty, straight-A achiever from a rural Virginia town,” who said she was invited to a fraternity party by a fellow lifeguard at the university pool named “Drew.”

The original story said Jackie was gang-raped for hours at that party by seven men as Drew and another man cheered Jackie’s attackers on.

Ensuing news reports and a Charlottesville, Va., police investigation found serious flaws in the Rolling Stone story. Reporters and investigators could not corroborate details in the articles. Most notably, there was no fraternity function on the night of the alleged rape. 

In December, Rolling Stone publisher and editor Jann S. Wenner enlisted Columbia University, which has one of the most respected journalism schools in the country, to reinvestigate the story. Rolling Stone said Sunday that the magazine did not pay Columbia University to report and produce the inquiry. Rolling Stone posted the full report on its website, and pledged to publish a condensed version in print. The CJR report exceeds 12,000 words. 

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