Rolling Stone backs off story of alleged fraternity rape at UVA

A horrific story of gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity, published in Rolling Stone, rocked the media and campuses around the country. Now, Rolling Stone has apologized for “discrepancies” in the account.

Steve Helber/AP
Tommy Reid, president of the University of Virginia’s Inter-Fraternity Council speaks at a news conference in Charlottesville, Va., Nov. 24. Rolling Stone is casting doubt on the account it published of a young woman who says she was gang-raped at a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity party at the school, saying there now appear to be discrepancies in the student's account.

Rolling Stone’s managing editor Will Dana published a note Friday admitting “discrepancies” in an account last month of an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity.

But the statement has left many questions unanswered, further stoking the debate over not just universities’ handling of rape allegations but also the best practices for journalists attempting to bring such stories to light.

The note explained that during months of reporting there were no reasons to doubt the credibility of Jackie, the main subject of the story. It also said that the magazine decided not to contact the man she claimed to have orchestrated the attack, out of fear of retaliation against her.

But it went on to say: “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced…. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.”

For some, that’s enough to cast doubt on the entire account – which prompted a police investigation and a suspension of fraternities at UVA.

“It now looks like a hoax to me,” writes Hans Bader, a Washington lawyer and former US Department of Education lawyer (and, coincidentally, a 1991 graduate of UVA) in an email to the Monitor. “Those who presumed the fraternity’s guilt on the way to drawing sweeping, broad-brush conclusions about ‘rape culture’ should not have jumped to those conclusions.”

But for advocates of rape survivors, “inconsistencies” in Jackie’s account may simply be attributable to the effects of trauma, and shouldn’t automatically be interpreted as nullifying her credibility.

“Such an apology really does have a huge ripple effect, and unfortunately fuels people who disbelieve victims,” says Laura Dunn, a campus rape survivor and founder of the legal advocacy group SurvJustice. “I still believe something horrible happened to [Jackie].”

One of the key points of debate about how the Rolling Stone story was reported centers around the decision not to contact the men Jackie accused.

Although the men were not named in the story, some critics have argued that getting their response is a basic form of due diligence, while others have pointed out that many crime stories have been reported without contacting the accused directly.

If Jackie had disclosed the names and Rolling Stone had contacted them, Jackie would have been vulnerable to retaliation and possibly defamation lawsuits, Dunn says, so the decision by Rolling Stone was an understandable approach.

“Privacy is a huge concern when talking with survivors. It’s tough to tell your story,” says Tracy Cox, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC).  The reporter in this case appears to have taken a victim-centered approach, she says, and “maybe the editor should have thought, OK, well we’re either going to not name the fraternity or interview others to round out her coverage,” she says. “That’s not my call to make.”

“We hope reporters would not be discouraged” from telling these important stories and that the fallout from the Rolling Stone article will not discourage victims from coming forward, Ms. Cox adds.

Journalists having trouble verifying a sensitive account about sexual assault have another option, says Lauren Klinger of The Poynter Institute, a teaching center for working journalists: “Why not be transparent with readers about why you are unable to verify” certain parts of a story, she says.

The part of Friday’s editor’s note that Klinger says she’s most uncomfortable with is that it suggests that inconsistencies in the account are the fault of Jackie. “I would not feel comfortable blaming my source. If I make a mistake in my story, that’s on me.”

It also leaves unclear to readers how much of the story should be doubted, which adds to the attitude victims often face in society that their stories aren’t believable, Klinger says.

The Washington Post cast further doubt on the Rolling Stone article Friday when it reported: “A group of Jackie’s close friends, who are sex assault awareness advocates at U-Va., said they believe something traumatic happened to her, but they also have come to doubt her account. They said details have changed over time, and they have not been able to verify key points of the story in recent days.”

Since 2013, Poynter and the NSVRC have offered an online self-directed class to journalists who want to be better informed about reporting on sexual assault.

Phi Kappa Psi’s Virginia Alpha Chapter, allegedly the site of the gang rape, put out a statement Friday saying it can only provide limited comment because of an investigation by the Charlottesville Police Department.

But the fraternity does note that no member was employed as a lifeguard at the university’s aquatic center. (In the article, the man said to have led the gang rape in 2012 was described as a lifeguard at a university pool). It also notes that the fraternity did not have a “date function or social event” the weekend of September 28th, when the incident was said to have taken place.

In response to Friday’s note in Rolling Stone and the Washington Post story, UVA President Teresa Sullivan issued a statement, which reads in part: “Over the past two weeks, our community has been more focused than ever on one of the most difficult and critical issues facing higher education today: sexual violence on college campuses. Today’s news must not alter this focus.”

“We will continue to take a hard look at our practices, policies and procedures, and continue to dedicate ourselves to becoming a model institution in our educational programming, in the character of our student culture, and in our care for those who are victims,” Ms. Sullivan said.

The Monitor attempted to get information from the Charlottesville Police Department about the investigation Friday afternoon but has yet to hear back.

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