Rolling Stone Officially Withdraws UVA Story, Blames Rape Victims


Image: University Of Virginia Fraternity At Center Of Disputed Rolling Stone Magazine Story On Alleged Gang Rape Incident

Students walk past the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house on the University of Virginia campus

Rolling Stone has officially retracted its explosive article about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, after a top journalism school released a 12,000-word report detailing the magazine’s “journalistic failure” in reporting the story. The discredited story is now being held up as a case study in failed journalism.

The report represents the final nail in the coffin of writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s cover story, “A Rape On Campus,” which came under increasing scrutiny after it was first published at the end of last year. Rolling Stone’s retraction has also reopened a contentious debate about whether being appropriately sensitive to sexual assault victims is inherently in conflict with the fact-checking standards for journalists.

At Rolling Stone’s request, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism undertook an independent investigation of “A Rape On Campus,” after other outlets raised serious concerns about discrepancies in Erdely’s reporting. The review concluded that, at nearly every step in the editorial process, the magazine failed in its “reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking” responsibilities.

The editors at Rolling Stone have largely laid the blame at the feet of “Jackie,” the UVA student whose allegations of a brutal gang rape at a fraternity house formed the central narrative of Erdely’s story.

Back in December, in the magazine’s first public statement distancing itself from Erdely’s reporting, managing editor Will Dana wrote that “we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.” Sean Woods, who personally edited the story, takes a similar tact in the magazine’s report of its decision to retract Erdely’s article. “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim. We honored too many of her requests in our reporting. We should have been much tougher,” Woods said.

The experts at Columbia, however, disagree that Jackie’s status as an alleged gang rape victim was the primary reason that Rolling Stone failed to uphold its journalistic responsibilities. Their exhaustive review of the reporting and editing process concludes that “Rolling Stone’s failure with ‘A Rape on Campus’ need not have happened, even accounting for the magazine’s sensitivity to Jackie’s position.”

“The explanation that Rolling Stone failed because it deferred to a victim cannot adequately account for what went wrong,” the review’s authors write. Instead, the issues stemmed from more fundamental failures regarding reporting, editing, and fact-checking. The report notes that the magazine “did not pursue important reporting paths” even when Jackie didn’t object, relied too much on pseudonyms, leaned too heavily on a single source, and failed to make follow-up calls to verify key details of Jackie’s account.

Writing in the Guardian, feminist writer Jessica Valenti criticizes Rolling Stone — which hasn’t yet fired anyone or indicated any forthcoming changes in its editorial process in the aftermath of the Columbia report — for framing its failings in terms of rape victims rather than in terms of reporting. Valenti laments that “editors at the magazine once again placed the blame for their errors where it so often ends up when it comes to sexual assault: on a young woman who alleges she was raped.”

Over the past several months, as the Rolling Stone story has continued to unravel, victim advocates across the country have expressed concerns that the controversy surrounding the magazine’s discredited account will make it more difficult for other survivors to feel comfortable coming forward.

Despite the media discussion about journalists being too quick to believe rape victims’ accounts, there’s plenty of evidence that most survivors are not typically greeted with support when they try to speak up about sexual violence. The public remains far more skeptical of rape than of other crimes, and victims are often told that they must have done something — like drink too much alcohol or dress too revealingly — to “provoke” the assault against them. A staggeringly high number of rape victims don’t feel comfortable reporting their assaults through official channels because they don’t think they’ll be believed.

Erdely herself, who issued a public apology on Sunday evening after remaining silent for months, appears to be aware of that reality. “Reporting on rape has unique challenges, but the journalist still has the responsibility to get it right,” she said. “I hope that my mistakes in reporting this story do not silence the voices of victims that need to be heard.”


Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress