How Rolling Stone blew it so badly on UVA fraternity rape story

Columbia University’s report on the now-discredited Rolling Stone article about a campus rape at the University of Virginia is a damning indictment of fundamental journalistic failures, a sobering lesson for the profession.

Rolling Stone
Illustration with Rolling Stone magazine's discredited article “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA.”

To journalists and those fighting sexual assault on campus, Columbia University’s report on a Rolling Stone story about an alleged fraternity rape at the University of Virginia is jarring. But it doesn’t come as a surprise.

The magazine already had acknowledged “discrepancies” in the 9,000-word account of a young woman known only as “Jackie” who claimed to have been gang-raped one night at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. For one thing, the story’s author – Sabrina Rubin Erdely – never attempted to confirm or contact the alleged attackers. For the most part, it was a lurid, single-source story, leading the magazine’s editors to conclude that their trust in Jackie “was misplaced.”

Investigative reports by the Washington Post and other news outlets soon poked major holes in the story, interviewing other sources – including the man alleged to have been Jackie’s date that night as well as friends of the young woman who had been with her shortly after the event.

The Charlottesville, Va., police department issued the results of its own four-month investigation, which included more than 70 interviews and found no evidence that such an attack took place. (The case remains open.)

The essence of the investigation and critique by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, led by its dean, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Steve Coll, is found in this paragraph:

“Rolling Stone's repudiation of the main narrative in ‘A Rape on Campus’ is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking. The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine's editors to reconsider publishing Jackie's narrative so prominently, if at all. The published story glossed over the gaps in the magazine's reporting by using pseudonyms and by failing to state where important information had come from.”

Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” rattled a nation already trying to do something about what critics and activists call a “rape culture.” It added to the “Animal House” impression of frat boy life that is not only exclusive and privileged but in many places misogynistic and racist.

Reports in recent months have focused on binge drinking – sometimes leading tragically to the death of young men – as well as racial insults and sexual misconduct.

At North Carolina State University, a fraternity was suspended when what appears to be a fraternity pledge book filled with racist and sexually explicit comments, including handwritten references to rape and lynching, was found at a restaurant near the school's campus. North Carolina State officials suspended another fraternity in response to charges of sexual assault and drug use.

The video tape of a racist chant quickly led to the closure of a fraternity chapter at the University of Oklahoma. Pennsylvania State University suspended a fraternity which had a private Facebook page that included photos of nude and partly nude women, some apparently asleep or passed out.

Meanwhile, Columbia University’s damning report about Rolling Stone has led to considerable discussion (and soul-searching) among journalism professionals, whose credibility can be irreparably damaged by such episodes.

With Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus,” writes Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, which teaches writing and media ethics around the world, “What might have been an effective anecdote or case study came to dominate the story and, ultimately, undermine it.”  

“Like other writing teachers, I have been a champion of showing over telling, of an appeal to the senses, of the power of vicarious experience through narrative,” Mr. Clark writes. “But there is another, more important move we teach at Poynter, a lesson about focus embodied in the question: ‘What is this story really about?’  When an important investigation about sexual assault on campus became the gruesome story about ‘a rape,’ a magazine – and all its stakeholders – lost its way.”

Columbia University’s 12,000-word report (considerably longer than the Rolling Stone article it addresses) notes that “the story's blowup comes as another shock to journalism's credibility amid head-swiveling change in the media industry.”

“The particulars of Rolling Stone's failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail,” the report states.
 The UVA fraternity alleged to have been the scene of the attack has called the Rolling Stone article defamatory and says it’s exploring its legal options.

"These false accusations have been extremely damaging to our entire organization, but we can only begin to imagine the setback this must have dealt to survivors of sexual assault," said Stephen Scipione, president of the Virginia Alpha Chapter of Phi Kappa Psi.

Despite its failures, the article heightened scrutiny of campus sexual assaults amid a campaign by President Obama. The University of Virginia had already been on the US Department of Education's list of 55 colleges under investigation for their handling of sex assault violations.

The article also prompted UVA President Teresa Sullivan to temporarily suspend Greek social events. Fraternities later agreed to ban kegs, hire security workers, and keep at least three fraternity members sober at each event.

Sunday evening, the article was pulled from Rolling Stone’s website, replaced by the Columbia report.

In an introduction to the report on Rolling Stone’s website Sunday evening, managing editor Will Dana wrote:

“This report was painful reading, to me personally and to all of us at Rolling Stone. It is also, in its own way, a fascinating document – a piece of journalism, as Coll describes it, about a failure of journalism. With its publication, we are officially retracting 'A Rape on Campus.' We are also committing ourselves to a series of recommendations about journalistic practices that are spelled out in the report. 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. 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.” 

Also on Sunday evening, Ms. Erdely issued an apology, in which she said, “I want to offer my deepest apologies: to Rolling Stone’s readers, to my Rolling Stone editors and colleagues, to the U.V.A. community, and to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to