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Opinion Rolling Stone needs to come clean about its campus rape story

After days of questions, Rolling Stone has finally answered the two big questions asked of its blockbuster story about sexual assault at the University of Virginia: Did reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely try to contact the students who were accused of gang-raping Jackie, a student whose shocking story anchored the piece? And if not, why not?

In a statement that clarifies the conflicting accounts Erdely and her editor have given to numerous publications, editor Will Dana explains that:

Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her. In the months Erdely spent reporting the story, Jackie neither said nor did anything that made Erdely, or Rolling Stone’s editors and fact-checkers, question Jackie’s credibility. Her friends and rape activists on campus strongly supported Jackie’s account. She had spoken of the assault in campus forums. We reached out to both the local branch and the national leadership of the fraternity where Jackie said she was attacked. They responded that they couldn’t confirm or deny her story but had concerns about the evidence.

Dana also explains that, “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.”

Washington Post reporters also published a story that attempted to verify Erdely’s reporting, and to contact the man Jackie identified as her date on the night she said she was assaulted.

Among other details, The Post reports:

Overwhelmed from sitting through interviews with the writer, Jackie said she asked Erdely to be taken out of the article. She said Erdely refused and Jackie was told that the article would go forward regardless. Jackie said she finally relented and agreed to participate on the condition that she be able to fact-check her parts in the story, which she said Erdely accepted. Erdely said in an e-mail message that she was not immediately available to comment Friday morning.

This catastrophe for journalism — and for a conversation about sexual assault on college campuses that remains of critical importance — is in part of Rolling Stone’s own making.

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I would not have made the agreement with Jackie that Erdely and her editors struck. But having done so, Rolling Stone ought to have been clear about their agreement with Jackie in the initial article, and explained in a clear and forthright way the efforts they made to speak with the fraternity. These details might have affected how credible some readers found Jackie’s account, but they would also have added context to her fears of retaliation and her sense of the campus climate.

Rolling Stone has published a note to readers apologizing for an article about an alleged U-Va. sexual assault, saying new information shows discrepancies in the victim's story. (Video: Reuters)

Rolling Stone interviewed Emily Renda, another University of Virginia student who says she is a survivor of sexual assault, who is active in campus anti-rape advocacy, and who was also a target of the same retaliation that Jackie experienced. Erdely also spoke with Stacy, another student who reported being abused and successfully pursued a misconduct complaint through the UVA disciplinary process. So why did Erdely and Rolling Stone choose Jackie as the main character in “A Rape on Campus,” even though they had to agree not to contact the men she was accusing, and especially after she tried to withdraw her participation?

Was it that Jackie’s story was not simply an account of sexual assault, but a gang-rape, an attention-grabbing atrocity that seemed like it might generate more heat on the issue? Was it an opportunity to indict the institutional culture of fraternities by describing an assault that did not merely happen at a Phi Kappa Psi party, but that was presented as part of an initiation ritual? Whatever the choices Rolling Stone made in reporting and editing “A Rape on Campus,” the magazine would do itself and the effort to end sexual assault on campus a favor by publishing a full autopsy of its choices.