Last October, as she was finishing her story, Erdely emailed Stephen Scipione, Phi Kappa Psi’s local chapter president. “I’ve become aware of allegations of gang rape that have been made against the UVA chapter of Phi Kappa Psi,” Erdely wrote. “Can you comment on those allegations?”
It was a decidedly truncated version of the facts that Erdely believed she had in hand. She did not reveal Jackie’s account of the date of the attack. She did not reveal that Jackie said Phi Kappa Psi had hosted a “date function” that night, that prospective pledges were present or that the man who allegedly orchestrated the attack was a Phi Kappa Psi member who was also a lifeguard at the university aquatic center.
Erdely next telephoned Shawn Collinsworth, then Phi Kappa Psi’s national executive director. Collinsworth volunteered a summary of what UVA had passed on to the fraternity’s leaders: that there were allegations of “gang rape during Phi Psi parties” and that one assault “took place in September 2012.”
Erdely asked him, according to her notes, “Can you comment?”
If Erdely had provided Scipione and Collinsworth the full details she possessed instead of asking simply for “comment,” the fraternity might have investigated the facts she presented. After Rolling Stone published, Phi Kappa Psi said it did just that. Scipione said in an interview that a review of the fraternity’s social media archives and bank records showed that the fraternity had held no date function or other party on the night Jackie said she was raped. A comparison of fraternity membership rolls with aquatic center employment records showed that it had no members who worked as lifeguards, Scipione added.
Erdely said Scipione had seemed “really vague,” so she focused on getting a reply from Collinsworth. “I felt that I gave him a full opportunity to respond,” she said. “I felt very strongly that he already knew what the allegations were because they’d been told by UVA.” As it turned out, however, the version of the attack [that had been] provided to Phi Kappa Psi [earlier by UVA] was quite different from and less detailed than the one Jackie had provided to Erdely.
Scipione said that Rolling Stone did not provide the detailed information the fraternity required to respond properly to the allegations. “It was complete bulls—,” he said. “They weren’t telling me what they were going to write about. They weren’t telling me any dates or details.” Collinsworth said that he was also not provided the details of the attack that ultimately appeared in Rolling Stone.
There are cases where reporters may choose to withhold some details of what they plan to write while seeking verification for fear that the subject might “front run” by rushing out a favorably spun version preemptively. There are sophisticated journalistic subjects in politics and business that sometimes burn reporters in this way. Even so, it is risky for a journalist to withhold detailed derogatory information from any subject before publication. Here, there was no apparent need to fear “front-running” by Phi Kappa Psi.
Even if Rolling Stone did not trust Phi Kappa Psi’s motivations, if it had given the fraternity a chance to review the allegations in detail, the factual discrepancies the fraternity probably would have reported might have led Erdely and her editors to try to verify Jackie’s account more thoroughly.