The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism published its independent review of Rolling Stone's discredited University of Virginia (UVA) gang-rape story on Sunday, citing "systematic failing" at the publication and prompting the magazine to officially retract the 9,000-word article.
Published in November, the Rolling Stone article by Sabrina Rubin Erdely gives the account of a student, identified as Jackie, who says she was gang-raped at a Phi Kappa Psi party her freshman year and goes on to detail her frustration with the administration's and her peers' responses to the allegations. In the article, the victim says she felt abandoned by the school and many of her classmates. She did not file a police report, but did report the incident to UVA's Sexual Misconduct Board.
Rolling Stone asked the school to conduct a review after the Washington Post conducted several interviews that led to doubts regarding significant details of Jackie's account. Shortly after, the magazine's managing editor Will Dana backed away from the article but stopped short of officially retracting it. On Sunday, the publication issued an official retraction and removed the story from its website.
Last month, Charlottesville Police found "no substantive basis" for the claim that a gang-rape occurred in a fraternity house at UVA in the way Jackie described.
The more than 12,000-word report found the publication's major mistakes stemmed from too much trust in Jackie, who declined to participate in the police investigation or review.
"It was a systematic failing and it involved basically every level of Rolling Stone's newsroom," says Steve Coll, co-author of the report and dean of the journalism school.
Erdely and her editors failed to take basic reporting steps and gave Jackie significant control of the narrative in an attempt to avoid re-traumatizing her, according to the report.
Among the mistakes:
- Failure to contact individuals from Jackie's narrative;
- Using pseudonyms for Jackie's friends and her lead attacker;
- Not identifying or contacting the lead attacker; and
- Providing insufficient information to UVA officials regarding the allegations when seeking comments.
"All this was avoidable through routine practices of journalistic verification," Coll told Columbia Journalism Review, pointing to the failure to identify Jackie's three friends as the central mistake. Had Ederly talked with them, "she would have heard a disturbing contradiction of what Jackie had told her."
"The editors invested Rolling Stone's reputation in a single source," concludes the report.
As the report was published, Erdely issued an apology.
"Reading the Columbia account of the mistakes and misjudgments in my reporting was a brutal and humbling experience. I want to offer my deepest apologies: 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," she says in her statement.
UVA President Teresa Sullivan issued a statement regarding the report as well, saying that the November article "did nothing to combat sexual violence," "damaged serious efforts to address the issue," and "damaged the reputations of many innocent individuals" and the school.
The university had been "working to confront sexual violence" prior to the article and it will continue to do so, says Sullivan.
"Our highest priority is to ensure the safety of our students so they can learn and achieve their personal potential in an environment of trust and security," she says (Kass, Daily Progress, 4/5; Folkenflik, "The Two-Way," NPR, 4/5; Coronel, et al., Columbia Journalism Review, 4/5; New York Times, 4/5).
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