Rolling Stone apologized to its readers on Friday for a story it published about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity, which the magazine said was not sufficiently fact-checked.
The magazine apologized for the failure of the story’s author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, to reach out to the alleged perpetrators in the story. The apology stated that the decision to not contact the accused was to honor a request by the accuser, nicknamed “Jackie,” who feared retaliation.
“In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced … and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account,” Will Dana wrote in a note on the Rolling Stone website. “We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.”
This omission has been criticized for violating basic principles in reporting ethics. In the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, one precept is that reporters should “Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.”
The apology is at odds with Erdely’s previous account of her reporting process. In a podcast with Slate on Nov. 27, after repeatedly deflecting questions about whether she had ever talked to the alleged perpetrators, Erdely implied that she tried to contact them but failed.
“I reached out to them in multiple ways. They were kind of hard to get in touch with because [the fraternity’s] contact page was pretty outdated,” Erdely said. She said she talked to the fraternity’s local president and its national crisis manager. They were not accused of the crime.
Another tenet of the SPJ’s Code of Ethics is that reporter should “Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences,” yet the original Rolling Stone story did not mention whether the accused had been contacted, and did not provide an explanation for the omission.
The 9,000-word story, published on Nov. 19, describes in detail a three-hour rape of Jackie by seven members of Phi Kappa Psi at one of the fraternity’s “date functions” in 2012, and its aftermath.
The story generated national outcry shortly after it was published, and on Nov. 22 UVA president Teresa Sullivan suspended all fraternity activities on campus until Jan. 9.
Members of Phi Kappa Psi had to leave their fraternity house after people threw bricks through its windows, and Dean Nicole Eramo, who was portrayed as unsympathetic to Jackie in the story, received death threats, according to an editor at the university’s student newspaper.
Gradually, the story drew skepticism, beginning with a critique of the story that Worth magazine editor Richard Bradley wrote on his personal blog.
Other media outlets began to investigate the story, and on Friday, the Washington Post published interviews with Jackie’s friends who saw her that night and whose testimonies contradicted the narrative in the Rolling Stone story.
On Friday, the UVA chapter of Phi Kappa Psi released a statement disputing other details in the Rolling Stone story. One of the perpetrators was described as a Phi Kappa Psi member who worked as a lifeguard, but the fraternity says that a list of the Aquatic and Fitness Center 2012 roster shows no Phi Kappa Psi member.
Phi Kappa Psi also stated that there was no social function on the Sept. 28 weekend on which the rape allegedly occurred, and that because the pledging process takes place only during the spring, the gang rape could not have been part of a fraternity pledging or initiation process.
Meanwhile, Matt Taibbi, one of Rolling Stone’s most prominent writers, defended the magazine’s fact-checking process on Saturday.
“People also need to understand that the mistake here did not involve the fact-checking department. I was so surprised because Coco McPherson’s fact-checking operation is so intense that it’s nearly caused me nervous breakdowns in the past,” Taibbi wrote in a series of tweets. “It usually takes longer to fact-check a Rolling Stone feature than it does to write it. Each review is like an IRS audit. It’s miserable.”
On Saturday, Rolling Stone edited its apology to readers on its website, removing the sentence about their “misplaced trust” in Jackie and adding that “These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie.” The edit was made without a a note or explanation in the apology, for which the magazine had drawn more criticism.