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Rolling Stone Retracts Debunked UVA Rape Story After Report

Rolling Stone retracted its "Rape on Campus" story after an independent report found it violated "basic, even routine journalistic practice."
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/ Source: NBC News

Rolling Stone magazine formally retracted its since-debunked story about a gang rape at the University of Virginia after an independent report found Sunday that it violated "basic, even routine journalistic practice."

The report on the article by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, which was titled "A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA," was released Sunday night by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Rolling Stone, which commissioned the report, and Columbia University both published it in full.

The article, published online in November, detailed a brutal gang rape of a UVA student named "Jackie" at the school's Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. The article sparked outrage and prompted the president of the university to suspend all fraternities for the rest of the semester.

Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone's publisher, told The New York Times that Erdely would continue to write for Rolling Stone and that managing editor Will Dana and article editor Sean Woods would keep their jobs.

Wenner called "Jackie," the story's source, "a really expert fabulist storyteller" who hoodwinked the magazine's editors.

In a statement, Erdely said reading the report was "a brutal and humbling experience."

"I did not go far enough to verify her story," Erdely said. "I allowed my concern for Jackie's well-being, my fear of re-traumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts. These are mistakes I will not make again."

Dana, likewise, called the report "painful reading" in a separate statement. "With its publication, we are officially retracting 'A Rape on Campus,'" he said.

Columbia found three main sources of error:

  • Erdely didn't try to contact three of Jackie's friends, who later denied quotations attributed to them.
  • Rolling Stone never identified Jackie's alleged attackers, making it impossible for police to effectively investigate the case.
  • The magazine didn't give Phi Kappa Psi, the alleged attackers' fraternity, an adequate chance to respond.

Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia journalism school, said in an accompanying interview that the first lapse was the most significant "point of failure" in the story's production.

"The reporter did not make an effort, an independent effort, to identify those three people," Coll said. "And yet, by her first draft, we see that she always intended to write in a derogatory way about them.

"Then the editor, in receipt of that anecdote which attributed dialogue to the three, that was quite unflattering, not only accepted a reporting trail that had failed to identify and hear from these three, but also made choices about attribution that hid from readers the fact that they got this speech from Jackie, not from any of the three," he added. "In fact they didn’t even know their last names."

Palma Pustilnik, a lawyer who has spoken for Jackie, told NBC News on Sunday that she and her client had no comment on the Columbia report. Coll and other Columbia deans will hold a news conference at noon ET Monday, the school said.

Questions about the validity of the account and methods of reporting were quickly raised by The Washington Post and other media outlets, which found that details of the story had changed and that the alleged ring-leader had never been contacted.

And police in Charlottesville, Virginia, concluded last month that they had "no basis to conclude that anything happened at that fraternity house."

In late December, Columbia announced in a statement that Rolling Stone had asked it to conduct a review of the "reporting and editorial decision making" that resulted in the article.

In the wake of the police investigation, Phi Kappa Psi asked Rolling Stone to "fully and unconditionally" retract the story and to take it down from its website.

UVA President President Sullivan on Sunday called the story "irresponsible journalism" that "unjustly damaged the reputations of many innocent individuals and the University of Virginia."

"Such false depictions reinforce the reluctance sexual assault victims already feel about reporting their experience, lest they be doubted or ignored," Sullivan said. "Sexual violence is a serious issue for our society, and it requires the focus and attention of all in our communities."

In an editor's note on its publication of the report, Rolling Stone said: "We would like to apologize to our readers and to all of those who were damaged by our story and the ensuing fallout, including members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and UVA administrators and students.

"Sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses, and it is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward," said the note, which was signed by Dana. "It saddens us to think that their willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings."