Rolling Stone magazine this week retracted a sensational story about an alleged university gang rape after an investigation found it was a ‘journalistic failure’. Andrew Laxon examines the fallout.

The story shocked America. "Jackie", a student at the University of Virginia, had been gang raped by seven male students in a fraternity house after a party. The details were horrific - she was ambushed in a darkened room, raped on a shattered glass coffee table and penetrated with a bottle. Afterwards three friends urged her not to report the vicious attack because it would damage her reputation. The university was cold and unhelpful, brushing off the incident. Assistant dean of students Nicole Eramo even suggested the incident was typical with the chilling quote; "No one wants to go to the rape school".

The story, published by Rolling Stone in November, launched a police inquiry, national protests against the sexual abuse of women on campus and retaliation attacks on the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity supposedly responsible.

"A Rape on Campus", also became Rolling Stone's best-rating non-celebrity online article ever, further enhancing the investigative, outspoken reputation of the 48-year-old counter-culture magazine.

Except it wasn't true. Doubts about Jackie's story were raised almost immediately by several media outlets, including the Washington Post. Rolling Stone backed away from its story after two weeks, blaming Jackie as an unreliable source. Charlottesville police could find no evidence of the sexual assault she described. This week an independent review commissioned by Rolling Stone and headed by Columbia School of Journalism dean Steve Coll, found a "journalistic failure" of basic mistakes in reporting and editing.

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University of Virginia students walk to campus past the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, the alleged scene of the disproved rape story. Picture / AP
University of Virginia students walk to campus past the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, the alleged scene of the disproved rape story. Picture / AP

It turned out that there had been no fraternity party on the night Jackie claimed. No student answered to Jackie's description of "Drew", the alleged ringleader of her attackers who belonged to Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and worked as a lifeguard at the university pool. The writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, failed to identify "Drew" or anyone else allegedly involved in the attack and approach them for their side of the story. She failed to approach the three friends Jackie mentioned, who would have flatly contradicted her version of events - and later did to other media. She also failed to give the fraternity enough information to properly respond to the investigations and apparently misquoted university administrators, including Nicole Eramo who said she never called the university a "rape school".

Erdely's editors allowed all this to happen. In particular, they agreed to call off the search for "Drew" when Jackie withdrew her co-operation as deadline was looming.

Rolling Stone ran the full 13,000-word report on its website and will run a shortened version in the magazine. But to the astonishment of some critics, publisher Jann S. Wenner said managing editor Will Dana and Erdely's editor Sean Woods would keep their jobs and Erdely would continue to write for the magazine. The university chapter of Phi Kappa Psi, which is a national fraternity, plans to sue the magazine for libel.

The findings prompted a storm of commentary in both social and traditional media about how and why the magazine could have got it so wrong. Some of it was flippant, even funny - Jezebel writer Jia Tolentino called the refusal to sack anyone a big turnaround for a magazine that once fired a senior music editor in 1996 for a negative review of a Hootie and the Blowfish album. But most was passionate and often angry. Was the debacle the result of falling journalistic standards, liberal bias or, as many argued, both? Should heads have rolled at the magazine and could legal action teach it a lesson? And how would this affect genuine claims of sexual harrassment on US campuses which sparked the story in the first place?

"An anatomy of a journalistic failure"
The Columbia Journalism Review report describes "A Rape on Campus" as a story of avoidable journalistic failure, encompassing reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking. "The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine's editors to reconsider publishing Jackie's narrative so prominently, if at all. The published story glossed over the gaps in the magazine's reporting by using pseudonyms and by failing to state where important information had come from."

Former Newsweek editor Edward Kosner agreed but described the Coll report as "a hammer to squash a gnat" in an article for the Wall Street Journal.

"For all the hand-wringing, there are no deep journalistic issues involved in the article. Any decent text editor on a magazine or desk editor on a newspaper would have taken one look at the manuscript, asked a few questions of the writer, and bounced it back with a growly "check it out!"

Ms. Erdely never could find "Drew," the alleged mastermind of the rapes, or Jackie's friends, also given pseudonyms, nor did she ask detailed questions of the fraternity or UVA officials that might have raised red flags about the authenticity of Jackie's account. On any professionally run publication, editors would have directed the writer to do these elementary tasks long before the article was submitted for editing, fact-checking and legal review..."

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Bloomberg columnist Megan McArdle said Erdely and her editors at Rolling Stone were driven less by their concern not to traumatise Jackie, as they claimed, and more by fear of losing a great, award-winning story. The magazine could easily have picked other, less sensational cases that were well documented and more typical of campus rapes but they all paled in comparison to Jackie's story.

"What I see when I read through the CJR report is the story of journalists who had an incredible story, one that would get them readers and professional acclaim, and, perhaps most important, give them the opportunity to right a great wrong. Their excitement about the story, their determination to tell it, blinded them to the problems, so that the old joke about a story being "too good to check" actually came true, with terrible consequences. And that should be a lesson to every journalist out there: The better your story, the harder you need to work to disconfirm it. Because the odds are, your brain is sending you all the wrong signals."

Notes related to the Phi Kappa Psi gang rape allegations cover a door at Peabody Hall at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Photo / AP
Notes related to the Phi Kappa Psi gang rape allegations cover a door at Peabody Hall at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Photo / AP

Liberal bias

Other critics think

Rolling Stone

was incapable of asking the right questions because they would have clashed with its liberal ideology.

"It is hard not to wonder if gender was a contributing factor," wrote Jonathan Mahler in the New York Times. "The magazine's publisher and managing editor, and the editor of the article, were all men. Did that make them wary, consciously or not, of pushing back against a female writer's account of a young woman's rape?"

New York magazine accused the CJR report of failing to question the ideological bias that might have led to the reporting failures.

"One of the peculiar, unexamined assumptions is that fraternity members are capable not only of loutishness or even rape, which is undeniable, but the sort of routine, systematized torture we would normally associate with serial killers or especially brutal regimes," wrote Jonathan Chait. "The story describes a gang rape as a fraternity initiation ritual, complete with members referring to their victim as "it," the way Buffalo Bill dehumanized his captive in Silence of the Lambs. You don't need to feel much affinity for (fraternity) culture - I certainly don't - to question whether depravity on this scale is plausible. It's the sort of error that could only be produced in an atmosphere of unquestioned loathing."

George Packer in the New Yorker highlighted "the temptations of narrative journalism", an increasingly popular technique in longer feature stories which adopts the conventions of fiction - "the use of characters, scenes, description, and dialogue; the creation of tension through pacing, foreshadowing, and recapitulation; the omniscient narrator whose sources are semi-hidden in order to preserve the elegance of storytelling". This applied not only to the horrific rape scene, but also to the allegedly callous reaction of Jackie's three friends. Erdely wrote it as fact but cautioned her editors that it came from Jackie. Rolling Stone did not make her interview the friends, it kept the narrative unattributed for a better read and it tried to sidestep the problem by giving them pseudonyms as well.

Not the first time?
Last December the Washington Post and Newsweek reported that Erdely had made similar serious errors in a 2011 story for Rolling Stone about "Billy Doe", a former altar boy from Philadelphia who claimed he was raped as a 10-year-old by two priests and a Catholic schoolteacher. Like Jackie's story, it contained graphic descriptions and left the reader in little doubt that it must be true. But as the Post reported; "The story didn't note, for example, that Billy, a drug addict, had a long arrest record and had told multiple, ever-changing versions of his story to a church official, investigators and a grand jury... What's more, (Erdely) never mentioned a personal fact: At the time she was reporting Billy's story, her husband was winding down his career as a prosecutor in the Philadelphia district attorney's office, which was prosecuting the defendants in the case." Rolling Stone said there was no conflict of interest because Erdley's husband wasn't part of the unit trying the men.

Right wing website Redstate claimed this week that in a 2013 story for Rolling Stone, "The Rape of Petty Officer Blumer", Erdely failed to look for the alleged rapist, did not attempt to contact witnesses who could have proved or disproved the complainant's account and did not contact the US Navy about their investigation - the same pattern of misreporting revealed in the latest case.

Genuine rape victims
Will the discredited story inhibit genuine rape victims at university and elsewhere from coming forward? Highly likely, according to the University of New Hampshire's Prevention Innovations center's co-director Jane Stapleton, who told AP she worried about the sensationalist nature of the Rolling Stone article as soon as she read it.

"It seemed to me so splashy and flashy - it set the bar so high for what campus sexual assault looks like," Stapleton said. "I worried that some survivors might have thought, "My assault wasn't so bad. Somehow I am less of a victim."'

"Then, with the retraction, you have some people saying, 'Well, she was lying. She had ulterior motives,"' Stapleton added. "The effect on some survivors would be, 'Well, I'm never going to tell my story because nobody's going to believe me."'

Blogger Caperton at the feministe website said the entire subject of campus rape and of false rape allegations, estimated at between 2 and 8 per cent of all claims, would now be derailed by the question; "But what about the Rolling Stone thing?" She added; "We can't, and shouldn't, deny the existence of unsubstantiated rape accusations - but every time one comes to the public eye in such a sensational way, rape victims are the ones who suffer."

Journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdley, the author of the controversial story.
Journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdley, the author of the controversial story.

Legal action

Media law experts told

AP

that the fraternity would face a challenging legal battle against the magazine. In a libel case, fraternity members would have to prove that

Rolling Stone

acted with "actual malice," said Lucy Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland's college of journalism and a former executive director of the nonprofit group Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Actual malice in a libel case is defined as acting with knowledge that information was false or with reckless disregard for the truth.

But the Columbia report found that Erdely and Rolling Stone editors apparently believed Jackie's tale, indicating that they did not knowingly publish false allegations.

Experts also said the case could become ugly for fraternity members if it goes to court. During the discovery process, Rolling Stone attorneys would have the opportunity to examine the fraternity's "dirty laundry," said Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota.

"The downside to bringing a libel case is that you open yourself up to discovery by the other side," Kirtley said. "The fraternity might want to think long and hard about its practices, the kinds of parties it has given."

University of Florida media law professor Lyrissa Lidsky said the Phi Psi lawsuit appeared to be more about seeking justice in the court of public opinion.

"Regardless of the outcome, I'm sure the fraternity thought this was a prudent way to get its message out that it was wronged by the conduct of Rolling Stone."