Report About Rolling Stone Article Causes Retraction

In December, Rolling Stone admitted failures in its damning article about a "culture of rape" at the University of Virginia. Now, following an independent report, the magazine has offered a full retraction.

Columbia Journalism Report

The report was issued by a group at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, hired to investigate the magazine's report. Concluding that Rolling Stone's investigation was "a failure that was unavoidable," the report identified terrible consequences of the article for the University and for the fraternity members who were accused. 

In addition, the report warns that the shoddy article may do further damage to rape victims:

"Erdely [the author] and her editors had hoped their investigation would sound an alarm about campus sexual assault and would challenge Virginia and other universities to do better. Instead, the magazine's failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations. (Social scientists analyzing crime records report that the rate of false rape allegations is 2 to 8 percent.) At the University of Virginia, 'It's going to be more difficult now to engage some people … because they have a preconceived notion that women lie about sexual assault,' said Alex Pinkleton, a UVA student and rape survivor who was one of Erdely's sources."

In part, the report identifies challenges in writing a good story: 

"There is a tension in magazine and narrative editing between crafting a readable story-a story that flows-and providing clear attribution of quotations and facts. It can be clunky and disruptive to write ‘she said' over and over. There should be room in magazine journalism for diverse narrative voicing-if the underlying reporting is solid."

Sabrina Rubin Erdely wrote an apology statement about her investigation and reporting: 

"The past few months, since my Rolling Stone article 'A Rape on Campus' was first called into question, have been among the most painful of my life. Reading the Columbia account of the mistakes and misjudgments in my reporting was a brutal and humbling experience. I want to offer my deepest apologies: to Rolling Stone's readers, to my Rolling Stone editors and colleagues, to the U.V.A. community, and to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.

"Over my 20 years of working as an investigative journalist - including at Rolling Stone, a magazine I grew up loving and am honored to work for - I have often dealt with sensitive topics and sources. In writing each of these stories I must weigh my compassion against my journalistic duty to find the truth. However, in the case of Jackie and her account of her traumatic rape, I did not go far enough to verify her story. 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.

"Reporting on rape has unique challenges, but the journalist still has the responsibility to get it right. I hope that my mistakes in reporting this story do not silence the voices of victims that need to be heard."

University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan said the story "...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.  

Discussion Starters: 

  • Some have reminded us that, although the story wasn't verified, some of the incidents described (or something else) may still have happened. How, if at all, is this relevant? 
  • Erdely was not terminated from her position at Rolling Stone. Should she have been? 
  • A writer for The New Yorker wrote a poignant summary of the situation. What else do you learn from reading this article?