Rolling Stone Retracts Rape Article but Fires No One After Review

"A Rape on Campus," by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, began to unravel shortly after it was published Nov. 19, 2014.

Rolling Stone magazine has retracted "A Rape on Campus," its bombshell November, 2014 story based on the statements of University of Virginia student "Jackie," who said she experienced a brutal gang-rape at the hands of several members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. A review by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism found that the story's author, contributing editor Sabrina Rubin Erdely; her principal editor, Sean Woods; the magazine's managing editor, Will Dana; and its lead fact-checker, Coco McPherson, all "set aside or rationalized as unneccessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine's editors to reconsider publishing" the story.

"A Rape on Campus" told the story of the story of "Jackie," a freshman at the University of Virginia who claimed to have been violently raped by a group of seven Phi Kappa Psi fraternity brothers after her date lured her to a party at the fraternity house.

"A Rape on Campus" has been removed from Rolling Stone's website; the original link now leads to the review of the story, but as of this writing a cached version is available.

The story was published November 19, 2014. Three days later, on November 22, 2014, facing pressure, the University of Virginia suspended all Greek activities on campus. Soon after, members of the media began to question the story and Erdely's total reliance on a single, anonymous source—Jackie. Erdely defended her reporting to The Washington Post and Slate and in so doing revealed that she had not contacted the three friends Jackie said she talked to immediately after the alleged assault. Nor, the public learned, had she contacted the alleged perpetrator, "Drew."

Other media outlets, The Washington Post chief among them, continued to investigate the story, finding a number of discrepancies in Erdely's account. On December 5, the Post reported it had contacted Jackie's friends, who said Erdely never talked to them—and their accounts of the night in question differed substantially from Jackie's. Furthermore, the UVA chapter of Phi Kappa Psi did not host a party the night Jackie said she was raped, the Post discovered.

After the Post released its report, Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana published a note to the magazine's readers in which he said, "We published the article with the firm belief that it was accurate. Given all of these reports, however, we have come to the conclusion that we were mistaken in honoring Jackie's request to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account."

The Post's Erik Wemple and Salon's Jenny Kutner, among others, criticized Dana for placing the blame for Rolling Stone's mistakes on Jackie.

Following several more weeks of revelations, Rolling Stone announced it had asked the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism to perform an independent review of "A Rape on Campus."

"The problem," the review found, "was methodology, compounded by 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."

The report says Erdely and her editors and fact-checkers failed in three ways:

  1. They did not contact Jackie's friends to corroborate her story, even though Jackie had not specifically asked them not to;
  2. They did not provide Phi Kappa Psi will a full accounting of the facts as they had heard them from Jackie, thereby giving the fraternity a chance to raise doubts about her version of events;
  3. They never bothered to verify the existence of "Drew," the alleged perpetrator. Even a cursory investigation would have revealed that no person matching Jackie's precise description attended the University.

Erdely and her colleagues blamed their errors on their willingness to accommodate Jackie, who described herself as the victim of a sexual assault. But "[t]he editors made judgments about attribution, fact-checking and verification that greatly increased their risks of error but had little or nothing to do with protecting Jackie's position," the review found.

So far, neither Erdely nor her editors have faced any censure for what the report described as failures to follow "basic, even routine journalistic practice." Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner described the incident as "an isolated and unusual episode" to The New York Times and said Erdely will continue to write for the magazine. He described Jackie as "a really expert fabulist storyteller." Dana and Woods will also keep their jobs, the Times reports.

The magazine also offered no plan to change its practices significantly. "It's not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don't think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things," Dana said, according to the report. "We just have to do what we've always done and just make sure we don't make this mistake again." Fact-checking chief Coco McPherson added, "I one hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter."

In her first public comments in months, Erdely said, "Reporting on rape has unique challenges, but the journalist still has the responsibility to get it right. I hope that my mistakes in reporting this story do not silence the voices of victims that need to be heard."