Kit Steinkellner
April 06, 2015 9:53 am

In November, Rolling Stone published a piece by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, which told the story of an alleged brutal gang rape that took place at a University of Virginia fraternity. Immediately after the piece was published, it was put under the microscope of media scrutiny when it was discovered that details of the story had changed and that key figures in the story had never been contacted for comment.

In December, Rolling Stone commissioned a report from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism to investigate the article, and the report came back condemning the UVA piece for failing to carry out “basic, even routine journalistic practice” to verify details of the assault from Rolling Stone’s source, a woman identified only as “Jackie” in the piece. As a result, Rolling Stone just released a statement, along with the report, officially retracting the UVA story. Managing editor Will Dana introduces the report with the following note:

The report, which also appears in Rolling Stone’s latest issue, and was overseen by Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, had some harsh findings about the story’s execution.

CSJ’s researchers claim the magazine’s “journalistic failure” “encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking.”

The report continues: “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.”

Rolling Stone was specifically taken to task for the following failures in putting together the UVA story:

  • Glossing over the reporting gaps “by using pseudonyms and by failing to state where important information had come from.”
  • Creating what CSJ’s researchers call an “environment where several journalists with decades of collective experience failed to surface and debate problems about their reporting or to heed the questions they did receive from a fact-checking colleague.”
  • Misrepresenting key players in the story including administrators and students.

UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan had harsh words with regards to how the article was handled by Rolling Stone:

“Such false depictions reinforce the reluctance sexual assault victims already feel about reporting their experience, lest they be doubted or ignored,” Sullivan said in a statement released by the university. “Sexual violence is a serious issue for our society, and it requires the focus and attention of all in our communities.”

Erdely, the reporter behind the story, recently spoke publicly about her piece, for the first time since publication, issuing a statement to the New York Times that included the following:

One can understand the difficult position Erdely was put in as a journalist investigating a sensitive case, but the sad fact is that her failure (and the failure of her publishers) to do their due diligence has caused irrevocable damage.

As the report states, “the magazine’s failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations,” even though false rape allegations, they note, are markedly low (between 2 and 8 percent).

Despite the statistics, we live in a world in which many people believe that the victim invented her assault, and while Rolling Stone set out to shed light on the issue of campus rape culture, they ended up turning the conversation in a direction that could ultimately have lasting negative consequences for victims of sexual assault.

Sexual assault deniers could point to this Rolling Stone story for years to come as a way of diminishing the credibility of survivors and the publications who tell their stories. As one survivor noted in the CSJ report, “It’s going to be more difficult now to engage some people. . .because they have a preconceived notion that women lie about sexual assault.” That, in itself, is truly a tragedy.

(Image via Rolling Stone)

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