Rolling Stone apologized and officially retracted a much-discussed story on campus rape Sunday night, after a lengthy review into the story by the Columbia School of Journalism was published.
The original story focused on a student at the University of Virginia, nicknamed “Jackie,” who told the magazine’s Sabrina Rubin Erdely that she had been gang-raped at a fraternity. But soon after the story was published in Rolling Stone, other outlets’ reporting — and eventually a police investigation — discredited the story.
Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana apologized in a statement along with the report to the magazine’s readers and to victims of rape who might feel conflicted about coming forward in the light of the controversy. However, none of the key players involved in the story — including its author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, will lose their jobs.
“We would like to apologize to our readers and to all of those who were damaged by our story and the ensuing fallout, including members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and UVA administrators and students,” Dana said.
“Sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses, and it is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward. It saddens us to think that their willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings.”
Here are a few key things we learned from Columbia’s report into Rolling Stone’s story:
Erdely failed at the most “basic, even routine” journalistic practices to complete the story.
Columbia says the key failures involved three elements of basic reporting — not deep investigation — that were not followed. The school says the magazine could have “avoided trouble” if it had correctly navigated these three areas.
The first was not independently contacting three friends “Jackie” told Erdely that she had called after she was raped. Jackie painted two of those friends in a negative light, portraying them as unsympathetic after she called them, flustered.
But Erdely did not try to independently verify the story with any of those three — even the one friend who was sympathetic, Ryan. Jackie told Erdely that she had talked to Ryan and that he was not willing to be interviewed for the story, because he was in a frat and did not want to be a part of her “shit show,” as he put it.
Ryan later told the authors of the Columbia report that an entire conversation Jackie described to Erdely “never happened.” Erdely admitted that if she had known Jackie fabricated their conversation, she would have “changed course immediately to research other UVA rape cases free of such contradictions,” according to the report.
Erdely did not properly reach out to the accused fraternity for comment.
When Erdely was putting the finishing touches on her story, she emailed Stephen Scipione, the local chapter president of Phi Kappa Psi, where Jackie had said the rape allegedly took place. She also called Shawn Collinsworth, the national executive director of the fraternity.
But despite the fact that Jackie did not put any strings on what she could reveal to Phi Kappa Psi, Erdely went to the fraternity with just a skeleton of the details of the serious allegations, according to Columbia’s report.
“It was a decidedly truncated version of the facts that Erdely believed she had in hand. She did not reveal Jackie's account of the date of the attack,” the report says.
“She did not reveal that Jackie said Phi Kappa Psi had hosted a "date function" that night, that prospective pledges were present or that the man who allegedly orchestrated the attack was a Phi Kappa Psi member who was also a lifeguard at the university aquatic center. Jackie had made no request that she refrain from providing such details to the fraternity.”
As the report pointed out, if Erdely had revealed the full details — or a more comprehensive account — of the allegations to the fraternity, it might have investigated and poked holes in her story before she published. As it turned out, the fraternity began its investigation after Rolling Stone published.
“Even if Rolling Stone did not trust Phi Kappa Psi's motivations, if it had given the fraternity a chance to review the allegations in detail, the factual discrepancies the fraternity would likely have reported might have led Erdely and her editors to try to verify Jackie's account more thoroughly,” the report says.
Erdely proposed an uncanny “solution” to deal with one of Jackie’s misgivings about the story.
Jackie didn’t want to give Erdely the name of her alleged assaulter, according to the report. When Erdely became insistent and said she had to do her “due diligence,” Jackie didn’t respond to messages for weeks on end.
Jackie told Erdely she could try to find her alleged assaulter another way, even suggesting she look at a fraternity roster. Instead, Erdely eventually proposed a “solution” — giving her alleged assaulter the nickname “Drew.” From that point on, Jackie seemed eager to cooperate with the story.
“There was, in fact, an aquatic center lifeguard who had worked at the pool at the same time as Jackie and had the first name she had used freely with Erdely. He was not a member of Phi Kappa Psi, however. The police interviewed him and examined his personal records. They found no evidence to link him to Jackie's assault,” the report says.
“If Rolling Stone had located him and heard his response to Jackie's allegations, including the verifiable fact that he did not belong to Phi Kappa Psi, this might have led Erdely to reconsider her focus on that case. In any event, Rolling Stone stopped looking for him.”
Editing and fact-checking was shoddy — and one brutal example stands out.
Sean Woods, who edited the piece, “did not do enough,” the report bluntly states. And the laissez-faire attitude extended to the piece’s fact-checking.
Woods, for one, remembered having a discussion with Erdely “at least three times” in which he pushed her to verify different details in the story, even if it meant going around her. But eventually, when Jackie became unresponsive, he and Dana, the managing editor, “gave in,” according to the report.
The fact-checker, meanwhile, told the authors of the Columbia report that she talked about issues she perceived with the reporting on Jackie’s three “friends” who she called after the rape. But she said discussions with Woods and Dana only led to the conclusion that they were “comfortable” going forward largely unverified. The fact-checker, however, did not raise her concerns with her immediate boss, who heads the fact-checking department.
Erdely called the experience “brutal and humbling” — but she still has a job.
In a statement, Erdely apologized to victims of sexual assault who “may feel fearful” about coming out.
“Over my 20 years of working as an investigative journalist — including at Rolling Stone, a magazine I grew up loving and am honored to work for — I have often dealt with sensitive topics and sources. In writing each of these stories I must weigh my compassion against my journalistic duty to find the truth,” Erdely said.
“However, in the case of Jackie and her account of her traumatic rape, I did not go far enough to verify her story. I allowed my concern for Jackie’s well-being, my fear of re-traumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts. These are mistakes I will not make again.”
However, Rolling Stone said she would continue to report and write for the magazine. The editor of the article, Woods, is also keeping his job.
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.