University of Virginia Fraternity to Sue Rolling Stone After ‘Journalistic Failure’
University of Virginia fraternity Phi Kappa Psi plans to sue Rolling Stone in response to a widely discredited magazine article from last November about an alleged gang rape at the fraternity house.
The fraternity’s announcement on Monday comes a day after a condemning Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism report called the Rolling Stone magazine article a “journalistic failure that was avoidable.” Columbia deans Sheila Coronel and Steve Coll, authors of the report, used the magazine’s errors as a lesson in journalism, they said at a live-streamed event Monday.
The report was requested by the magazine last December, after doubts about the November 2013 article were raised by media and Virginia state police who found no evidence of the gang rape described. At the time, the author of the story, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, contributing editor at Rolling Stone, said in a statement that she had lost all confidence in the story.
The piece “A Rape on Campus” was pulled from the magazine Sunday night and Rolling Stone senior editors and Erdely have issued an apology, timed with the Columbia report.
The allegations in Erdely’s widely discredited story were based on one young woman’s account about an incident that allegedly occurred in September 2012. In an over 12,000-word report, based on hundreds of pages of Erdely’s notes and interviews as well as audio recordings, Columbia found that Rolling Stone staff failed to practice “basic, almost routine” journalism, overlooking gaps in Erdely’s reporting in favor of the larger story.
Unlike incidents where journalists have fabricated stories knowingly, such as in 2003 when New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was fired for plagiarism and fabrication, the report found that Rolling Stone failed by a series of lapses in fact-checking.
Erdely may not have invented facts, the report said, but she relied on Jackie without vetting her story’s accuracy. Rolling Stone could have avoided errors by having better and clearer policies about reporting practices, using pseudonyms, and attribution.
Coll, who helped write the report, said Monday, “These are not failures of dishonesty in an individual. They are systematic failures, collective failures.”
Will Dana, managing editor at the magazine, who oversaw Erdely’s story, said the story’s breakdown reflected both an “individual failure” and “procedural failure, an institutional failure.”
Still, the magazine’s senior editors do not believe the story’s failure means they need to overhaul their editorial process. They are not firing Erdely or any other staff.
The report called Rolling Stone’s newsroom, “an environment where several journalists with decades of collective experience failed to surface and debate problems about their reporting.”
Rolling Stone did not lack the manpower to fact-check the article, the report noted. While print newspapers and magazines’ circulation have been declining in recent years and staff in most newsrooms have shrunken in size, the magazine was still able to fund Erdely’s extensive six months of investigation for the story and have a professional fact-checker look it over.
The professional fact-checker, who was left unnamed in the report because she did not have decision-making authority, went over Erdely’s story and found that it relied too much on a single source. Erdely’s principal editor for the story, Sean Woods, and Dana, the managing editor, were aware of the story’s flaws before publication but ultimately did not insist Erdely had to fix them.
Jackie’s experience was one of many being told at the time—women being sexually assaulted on college campuses—and seemed to fit into a larger pattern. The report said that Erdely and her editors may have had confirmation bias, selecting facts that backed up pre-existing assumptions. Woods and Erdely have said in the report that they couldn’t have imagined Jackie was lying.
Woods said that they were too deferential to Jackie, as an alleged rape victim. Still, the report states they could have done more to independently verify the details of Jackie’s information, which Jackie never explicitly forbade Erdely to do.
While the intent of Erdely and her editors was to investigate how campus sexual assault was dealt with by college administrations, the report stated that they may have had a damaging effect instead. “The magazine’s failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations,” the report said, then citing that false rape allegations tend to make up 2 to 8 percent of rape allegations.
When Erdely first spoke to Jackie, she was struck by how the college student seemed to have the “stamp of credibility.” The story Jackie told was compelling and sounded completely believable.
The report specifically notes three instances where Rolling Stone erred, beginning with when Jackie gave the name of the man who supervised the gang rape, a lifeguard who was in the fraternity Phi Kappa Psi.
Jackie struggled to spell the lifeguard’s last name and Erdely said that was when alarm bells went off in her mind.
“How could Jackie not know the exact name of someone she said had carried out such a terrible crime against her—a man she professed to fear deeply?” the report stated.
Erdely was unable to confirm the name Jackie had provided, that the man worked at the pool, was a member of the fraternity Jackie had identified, or had other connections to Jackie.
Another missed opportunity for Rolling Stone was when Erdely questioned Phi Kappa Psi she did not give any details to the fraternity of when or where the assault happened. When Rolling Stone’s report was published, fraternity members were shocked, hearing about the incident’s details for the first time.
If Erdely had been more specific in her questioning, the report said, she could have better ascertained the details of Jackie’s case. She would have learned there had not been a matchmaking party the night the incident allegedly occurred.
Thirdly, Jackie had told the reporter there were three former friends she had called for help the night she was raped. She only gave their first names: Ryan, Alex, and Kathryn.
Jackie painted an unflattering picture of these former friends when recalling the conversations she had with them. The report notes that the best practice in journalism is to seek both sides of a story when reporting derogatory information.
When Erdely tried to contact one of these friends through Jackie, Jackie told her that he did not want to comment. Later, when Columbia tracked down the friend, Ryan Duffin, he said Jackie had never contacted him. Erdely never tried to contact the others without Jackie’s help, although she said she had always intended on doing so.
The three friends all later said in the report that they had been willing to speak. The details of the sexual assault Jackie had told them were very different from what she told Erdely and even the name of the assaulter was changed. Had Erdely contacted them, the report noted, many new questions would have been raised.
Instead, after Erdely could not get in touch with Duffin, she and her editors ultimately agreed to simply give the three friends pseudonyms and leave the matter alone.
Finally, the report faulted Rolling Stone for not being transparent enough with its readers. When quoting the three friends, the magazine did not state that the conversation had only Jackie as a source. The publication also did not reveal that it had been unable to verify the lifeguard’s existence.
Without proper disclosure, readers were left with a false impression that there were multiple sources confirming Jackie’s story, the report found.
Coll said at the Monday conference, “That kind of attribution opaqueness is a ticket to trouble. It’s also bad journalistic practice.”
The report noted that even in the final version of the editor’s note about the story, Rolling Stone sounded defensive and claimed that Jackie’s friends “strongly supported her account.” But her friends could not independently confirm her story, unlike what the note made it sound like.
What happened to Jackie remains a mystery, said Coll on Monday. A disclaimer on the report stated that Rolling Stone’s poor journalism did not mean Jackie wasn’t sexually assaulted as she claimed.