A months-long investigation into a flawed Rolling Stone magazine article about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia has concluded that the story reflected failures at virtually every level, from reporting to editing to fact-checking.
In a 12,000-word report that reads like a reportorial autopsy, a three-person team at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism called the November article “a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. . . . The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting” that would likely have exposed the story as dubious.
Rolling Stone, which requested and cooperated with the probe, is publishing the Columbia exposé. The report serves as the magazine’s full explanation of how the story — “A Rape on Campus” — came about. Rolling Stone retracted it Sunday evening, and Managing Editor Will Dana and author Sabrina Rubin Erdely both issued apologies when the Columbia analysis was published.
Also on Sunday evening, U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan said in a statement: “Rolling Stone’s story, ‘A Rape on Campus,’ did nothing to combat sexual violence, and it damaged serious efforts to address the issue. Irresponsible journalism unjustly damaged the reputations of many innocent individuals and the University of Virginia. Rolling Stone falsely accused some University of Virginia students of heinous, criminal acts, and falsely depicted others as indifferent to the suffering of their classmate. The story portrayed University staff members as manipulative and callous toward victims of sexual assault. Such false depictions reinforce the reluctance sexual assault victims already feel about reporting their experience, lest they be doubted or ignored.”
The magazine story detailed the brutal gang rape of a student identified only as Jackie, allegedly by seven members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at U-Va., while two other people watched, during a party in September 2012. Erdely is a contributing editor to the magazine.
The story set off protests at the Charlottesville school over what the article described as the university’s indifferent handling of Jackie’s allegation. It also led the university to suspend all fraternity and sorority social functions and touched off a wide-ranging discussion about sexual violence on college campuses.
The Columbia investigation essentially confirms the earlier criticism and adds new details about the story’s gestation and development, offered by the magazine’s journalists, who have generally remained silent since the story’s flaws were exposed.
The report cites several major reporting failures. The principal one was Erdely’s, and ultimately her editor’s: almost total reliance on Jackie’s account of what occurred on the night of Sept. 28, 2012, when Jackie said she was lured by a date to an upstairs bedroom at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house and repeatedly assaulted.
The magazine essentially failed to find corroboration for Jackie’s account from others — students, university administrators, law enforcement officials — but published her story regardless.
Despite presenting in her story comments from three friends who advised Jackie that night not to report the rape, Erdely never spoke with those friends and made little effort to do so, the report confirmed. The friends — Ryan Duffin, Kathryn Hendley and Alex Stock — said Erdely never contacted them and denied that they had told Jackie to remain silent about the alleged crime.
In fact, Erdely wrote in her article that she had contacted Duffin and that he declined to be interviewed. That statement is apparently false; Duffin told The Post he was never contacted by Rolling Stone.
“In hindsight,” the report said, the most crucial decision that Rolling Stone made was not contacting the three friends. “That was the reporting path, if taken, that would almost certainly have led the magazine’s editors to change plans.”
In public statements and in its apology, Rolling Stone and Erdely also apparently misrepresented the notion that they declined to contact “Drew” — Jackie’s supposed date on the night of the alleged rape — because of an agreement with Jackie not to do so.
In fact, the Columbia report makes clear, there was no such agreement. “Jackie made no demand that Rolling Stone not try to identify Drew,” the report’s authors wrote, noting that Jackie even suggested Erdely check the fraternity’s roster to find him.
Neither Erdely nor the magazine’s editors were able to contact or identify Drew, a fact that wasn’t disclosed in the original story.
Dana, the managing editor, told the Columbia investigators that he was unaware that Erdely and her editor, Sean Woods, didn’t know “Drew’s” real name and hadn’t tried to confirm his existence before publication. Nor, he said, was he told that Erdely had made an agreement with Jackie not to try to speak with him. But, in fact, there was no such agreement — just a request from Jackie that Erdely refrain from doing so.
The report was written by Sheila Coronel, the dean of academic affairs at the journalism school; Steve Coll, the dean of the school; and Derek Kravitz, a post-graduate research scholar and former Metro reporter for The Post.
In an interview, Coll, a former managing editor at The Post, said they found no evidence of dishonesty in the reporting — no “inventing facts, lying to colleagues, plagiarism or such, that I would think of as grounds for automatic firing or serious sanction.”
He added: “Of course, it’s true that some of the mistakes were pretty basic. But it seemed important to spell them out. More and more reporters now work outside of big, confident institutions. The details of what it means to check facts or seek comment aren’t always obvious to them.”
On Sunday, Erdely said in a statement: “I want to offer my deepest apologies: to Rolling Stone readers, to my Rolling Stone editors and colleagues, to the UVA community, and to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article. . . . In the case of Jackie and her account of her traumatic rape, I did not go far enough to verify her story.”
In his Sunday e-mail, Dana told The Post that he thinks “the report is accurate and fair,” adding that he had come to many of the same conclusions after going through all the transcripts and the reporter’s notes after the story was questioned.
The report blamed both Dana and Woods for not spotting the weaknesses in Erdely’s account and for not insisting on more reporting.
In a related note, Nicole Eramo, a U-Va. dean directly involved in Jackie’s case, told the Columbia investigators through her lawyer that the article “falsely attributed” statements to her that she never made to Jackie, including the article’s assertion that she had called U-Va. “the rape school.”
The report also blamed Erdely for holding preconceptions about the response to sexual assault on college campuses: “Erdely believed the university was obstructing justice. . . . Jackie’s experience seemed to confirm this larger pattern.”
As a further prescriptive, the report recommended banning the use of pseudonyms, checking derogatory information more fully, and sharing reporting details with sources to get a full response. Dana told The Post that although Rolling Stone’s procedures were essentially sound — and “failed in this one instance” — the magazine will be implementing suggestions the report makes.
He added, though, that he expects that Erdely will continue to write for the magazine. “Sabrina’s done great work for us over the years and we expect that to continue,” he said in his e-mail.
Last month, Charlottesville’s police chief announced that his department was unable to confirm the gang-rape allegations published in the magazine. The police review, which included interviews with 70 individuals connected to the case, also showed that university administrators acted quickly to offer assistance to Jackie and investigate the allegations.
The three students mentioned in the article told The Post that Jackie said she had been forced to perform oral sex on five men. The Charlottesville police report noted that Jackie shared a similar account with university administrators. Sullivan said in a November 2014 statement that the Rolling Stone account disclosed “many details that were previously not disclosed to University officials.”
Jackie’s lawyer, Palma Pustilnik, declined to comment to The Post on Columbia’s report. The magazine, its managing editor said, “has tried to reach out to [Jackie] without success.”
Sexual assault survivors told The Post after the Rolling Stone article was published that the magazine had not accurately portrayed the administration response to sexual violence on campus. Columbia’s report found the same.
U-Va. student Alex Pinkleton, who survived a rape and an attempted rape during her first two years on campus, told Columbia that Rolling Stone’s failures had potentially fostered a chilling environment for students to report sexual assaults.
“It’s going to be more difficult now to engage some people . . . because they have a preconceived notion that women lie about sexual assault,” Pinkleton said.
Phi Psi fraternity members told Columbia what they had earlier told The Post: that the magazine’s allegations left their fraternity reeling as they questioned themselves about the validity of the Rolling Stone account. The Phi Psi house was vandalized, and frat members went into hiding after they were portrayed in the magazine as callous predators.
Ultimately, Phi Psi members were able to quickly establish through financial and digital records that the fraternity had not hosted a party on the night of Sept. 28, 2012. In addition, no Phi Psi member’s name resembles the one Jackie gave as her attacker’s.
“It’s completely tarnished our reputation,” Stephen Scipione, president of the U-Va. chapter of Phi Psi, told Columbia.
In a statement in response to the Charlottesville police review, the fraternity said that it was exploring legal options after the Rolling Stone article was discredited.