Last November, Rolling Stone published an investigative article called “A Rape On Campus,” a horrifying account of a young woman named Jackie’s experience being gang raped at a fraternity party at the University of Virginia. Besides being unsettling simply because it was about gang rape, the article made UVA officials nervous because it made them appear negligent in their handling of the case. It also made some Rolling Stone staff members nervous, because it was based largely on Jackie’s personal account of the rape, an account that was very difficult to corroborate. But Rolling Stone went ahead and published the article anyway, internally citing the importance of believing Jackie’s story—and the stories of rape victims in general—as the reason for its leap of faith.
Days after “A Rape On Campus” was published, media commentators began questioning the methodology behind the story, even as it became one of the most-read investigative pieces in the magazine’s history. Those doubts, Rolling Stone said, were shared by writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who began to question Jackie’s account after Erdely finally persuaded her to name her attacker, and Jackie couldn’t recall how to spell his last name. (This was after the story was already published.) From there, Rolling Stone published an editor’s note calling the facts of the story into question. Then, an investigation by The Washington Post claimed to have discovered details proving that Jackie’s story could not have happened the way she said it did in the article. Adding to the story’s credibility problems was an investigation by the Charlottesville, Virginia police which concluded, “There is no substantive basis to support the account alleged in the Rolling Stone article.”
Now, in light of an independent investigation conducted at Rolling Stone’s request by Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, the magazine has retracted “A Rape On Campus” entirely, breaking down exactly what went wrong in a lengthy mea culpa called “Rolling Stone And UVA: The Columbia University Graduate School Of Journalism Report.” Subtitled “Anatomy Of A Journalistic Failure,” the report attempts to break down the different ways by which Erdely and her editors could have prevented the story from ever making it to print, namely by fact-checking with the fraternity and pursuing the other characters—both major and minor—in Jackie’s story more aggressively for interviews.
While the magazine has been careful not to directly call Jackie a liar, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner tells The New York Times that “obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.” This brings up fears that this story—and the resulting fallout—may only worsen circumstances for sexual assault victims, who are often afraid to step forward for fear that they will be blamed for what happened to them, or not believed at all. By publishing the full report, which lays the blame for the debacle firmly on Rolling Stone’s reporting practices, the magazine is hoping to evaporate this notion. In its retraction, Rolling Stone says,
[T]he editors and Erdely have concluded that their main fault was to be too accommodating of Jackie because she described herself as the survivor of a terrible sexual assault…Yet the explanation that Rolling Stone failed because it deferred to a victim cannot adequately account for what went wrong.
“In the long term I don’t think people are going to look back at this story and say, ‘This is why women are not coming forward,’” Will Dana, the magazine’s managing editor, tells The New York Times. “At the same time, it’s certainly not helping things immediately.” In the short term, Erdely has published an apology of her own, calling the retraction a “brutal and humbling experience.” Meanwhile, Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity named in the article, is preparing to sue Rolling Stone for defamation, and Coll is urging neutrality, saying, “This was a failure of methodology. And this wasn’t the subject’s fault.” How this story will affect attitudes towards sexual assault on college campuses, as well as the profession of journalism in general, in the long term remains to be seen.