On Monday, Rolling Stone magazine formally retracted a November article on an alleged assault on a female student by members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the University of Virginia.
The controversial story, which set off a wave of criticism of the university as well as the provisions in place to protect victims of sexual assault within the US university system as a whole, was plagued with factual problems from its date of publication – or even long before, according to a scathing report on the story released by several members of the faculty of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
The report, commissioned by Rolling Stone, found a “systemic, institutional” failure of methodology, policy, practice, and basic journalistic principles of fairness and accuracy on the part of the magazine’s reporting and editorial practices, which led to the publication of the story when the facts provided by the main source had already been called into question.
That source, the victim, called “Jackie” in the article, had offered reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely a firsthand account of the events on the night of the alleged assault. Yet neither Erdely, her editor Sean Woods, or RS managing editor Will Dana, ever contacted any alternate sources or individuals named in the story, including the supposed ringleader of the assault, a student called “Drew,” or some of Jackie’s friends quoted directly in the article.
The Columbia report said that “the magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of report that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all”. The magazine hoped that the article “would sound an alarm about campus sexual assault and would challenge Virginia and other universities to do better”, the report said. “Instead, the magazine’s failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations.”
Though many are concerned about the effect this very public retraction will have on rape victims’ willingness to come forward, particularly at a crucial moment in the public discussion of sexual assault on campus, others are hoping this incident will provide an opportunity to clarify and improve standards and practices for both reporting – and reporting on – sexual assault on colleges campuses.
“As more survivors come forward to discuss their sexual assaults, journalists will need to learn to be clear with sources about what reporting on their stories may entail,” Anna North wrote for the New York Times. “They will also need to learn how to walk away if going through that process with a source proves impossible for any reason. “
The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, in the meantime, is planning to sue Rolling Stone for damages, saying the magazine “erroneously accused Phi Kappa Psi of crimes its members did not commit.”
University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan issued a statement in response to the Rolling Stone retraction, saying:
“Rolling Stone’s story ‘A Rape on Campus’ did nothing to combat sexual violence, and it damaged serious efforts to address the issue. Irresponsible journalism unjustly damaged the reputations of many innocent individuals and the University of Virginia. Rolling Stone falsely accused some University of Virginia students of heinous, criminal acts, and falsely depicted others as indifferent to the suffering of their classmate. The story portrayed university staff members as manipulative and callous toward victims of sexual assault. Such false depictions reinforce the reluctance sexual assault victims already feel about reporting their experience, lest they be doubted or ignored.”