A NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: Last November, we published a story, ‘A Rape on Campus’ [RS 1223], that centered around a University of Virginia student’s horrifying account of her alleged gang rape at a campus fraternity house. Within days, commentators started to question the veracity of our narrative. Then, when The Washington Post uncovered details suggesting that the assault could not have taken place the way we described it, the truth of the story became a subject of national controversy.
As we asked ourselves how we could have gotten the story wrong, we decided the only responsible and credible thing to do was to ask someone from outside the magazine to investigate any lapses in reporting, editing and fact-checking behind the story. We reached out to Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter himself, who accepted our offer. We agreed that we would cooperate fully, that he and his team could take as much time as they needed and write whatever they wanted. They would receive no payment, and we promised to publish their report in full. (A condensed version of the report will appear in the next issue of the magazine, out April 8th.)
This report was painful reading, to me personally and to all of us at Rolling Stone. It is also, in its own way, a fascinating document — a piece of journalism, as Coll describes it, about a failure of journalism. With its publication, we are officially retracting ‘A Rape on Campus.’ We are also committing ourselves to a series of recommendations about journalistic practices that are spelled out in the report. 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. It saddens us to think that their willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings.
Will Dana, Managing Editor
Last July 8, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, a writer for Rolling Stone, telephoned Emily Renda, a rape survivor working on sexual assault issues as a staff member at the University of Virginia. Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show “what it’s like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture,” according to Erdely’s notes of the conversation.1
Renda told Erdely that many assaults take place during parties where “the goal is to get everyone blackout drunk.” She continued, “There may be a much darker side of this” at some fraternities. “One girl I worked with closely alleged she was gang-raped in the fall, before rush, and the men who perpetrated it were young guys who were not yet members of the fraternity, and she remembers one of them saying to another … ‘C’mon man, don’t you want to be a brother?'”
Renda added, “And obviously, maybe her memory of it isn’t perfect.”
Erdely’s notes set down her reply: “I tell her that it’s totally plausible.”
Renda put the writer in touch with a rising junior at UVA who would soon be known to millions of Rolling Stone readers as “Jackie,” a shortened version of her true first name. Erdely said later that when she first encountered Jackie, she felt the student “had this stamp of credibility” because a university employee had connected them. Earlier that summer, Renda had even appeared before a Senate committee and had made reference to Jackie’s allegations during her testimony – another apparent sign of the case’s seriousness.
“I’d definitely be interested in sharing my story,” Jackie wrote in an email a few days later.
On July 14, Erdely phoned her. Jackie launched into a vivid account of a monstrous crime. She said, according to Erdely’s notes, that in September 2012, early in her freshman year, a third-year student she knew as a fellow lifeguard at the university’s aquatic center had invited her to “my first fraternity party ever.” After midnight, her date took her upstairs to a darkened bedroom. “I remember looking at the clock and it was 12:52 when we got into the room,” she told Erdely. Her date shut the door behind them. Jackie continued, according to the writer’s notes:
My eyes were adjusting to the dark. And I said his name and turned around. … I heard voices and I started to scream and someone pummeled into me and told me to shut up. And that’s when I tripped and fell against the coffee table and it smashed underneath me and this other boy, who was throwing his weight on top of me. Then one of them grabbed my shoulders. … One of them put his hand over my mouth and I bit him – and he straight-up punched me in the face. … One of them said, ‘Grab its motherfucking leg.’ As soon as they said it, I knew they were going to rape me.
The rest of Jackie’s account was equally precise and horrifying. The lifeguard coached seven boys as they raped her one by one. Erdely hung up the phone “sickened and shaken,” she said. She remembered being “a bit incredulous” about the vividness of some of the details Jackie offered, such as the broken glass from the smashed table. Yet Jackie had been “confident, she was consistent.” (Jackie declined to respond to questions for this report. Her lawyer said it “is in her best interest to remain silent at this time.” The quotations attributed to Jackie here come from notes Erdely said she typed contemporaneously or from recorded interviews.)2
Between July and October 2014, Erdely said, she interviewed Jackie seven more times. The writer was based in Philadelphia and had been reporting for Rolling Stone since 2008. She specialized in true-crime stories like “The Gangster Princess of Beverly Hills,” about a high-living Korean model and self-styled Samsung heiress accused of transporting 7,000 pounds of marijuana. She had written about pedophile priests and sexual assault in the military. Will Dana, the magazine’s managing editor, considered her “a very thorough and persnickety reporter who’s able to navigate extremely difficult stories with a lot of different points of view.”
Jackie proved to be a challenging source. At times, she did not respond to Erdely’s calls, texts and emails. At two points, the reporter feared Jackie might withdraw her cooperation. Also, Jackie refused to provide Erdely the name of the lifeguard who had organized the attack on her. She said she was still afraid of him. That led to tense exchanges between Erdely and Jackie, but the confrontation ended when Rolling Stone‘s editors decided to go ahead without knowing the lifeguard’s name or verifying his existence. After that concession, Jackie cooperated fully until publication.
Erdely believed firmly that Jackie’s account was reliable. So did her editors and the story’s fact-checker, who spent more than four hours on the telephone with Jackie, reviewing every detail of her experience. “She wasn’t just answering, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ she was correcting me,” the checker said. “She was describing the scene for me in a very vivid way. … I did not have doubt.” (Rolling Stone requested that the checker not be named because she did not have decision-making authority.)
Rolling Stone published “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” on Nov. 19, 2014. It caused a great sensation. “I was shocked to have a story that was going to go viral in this way,” Erdely said. “My phone was ringing off the hook.” The online story ultimately attracted more than 2.7 million views, more than any other feature not about a celebrity that the magazine had ever published.
A week after publication, on the day before Thanksgiving, Erdely spoke with Jackie by phone. “She thanked me many times,” Erdely said. Jackie seemed “adrenaline-charged … feeling really good.”
Erdely chose this moment to revisit the mystery of the lifeguard who had lured Jackie and overseen her assault. Jackie’s unwillingness to name him continued to bother Erdely. Apparently, the man was still dangerous and at large. “This is not going to be published,” the writer said, as she recalled. “Can you just tell me?”
Jackie gave Erdely a name. But as the reporter typed, her fingers stopped. Jackie was unsure how to spell the lifeguard’s last name. Jackie speculated aloud about possible variations.
“An alarm bell went off in my head,” Erdely said. How could Jackie not know the exact name of someone she said had carried out such a terrible crime against her – a man she professed to fear deeply?
Over the next few days, worried about the integrity of her story, the reporter investigated the name Jackie had provided, but she was unable to confirm that he worked at the pool, was a member of the fraternity Jackie had identified or had other connections to Jackie or her description of her assault. She discussed her concerns with her editors. Her work faced new pressures. The writer Richard Bradley had published early if speculative doubts about the plausibility of Jackie’s account. Writers at Slate had challenged Erdely’s reporting during a podcast interview. She also learned that T. Rees Shapiro, a Washington Post reporter, was preparing a story based on interviews at the University of Virginia that would raise serious doubts about Rolling Stone‘s reporting.
Late on Dec. 4, Jackie texted Erdely, and the writer called back. It was by now after midnight. “We proceeded to have a conversation that led me to have serious doubts,” Erdely said.
She telephoned her principal editor on the story, Sean Woods, and said she had now lost confidence in the accuracy of her published description of Jackie’s assault. Woods, who had been an editor at Rolling Stone since 2004, “was just stunned,” he said. He “raced into the office” to help decide what to do next. Later that day, the magazine published an editor’s note that effectively retracted Rolling Stone‘s reporting on Jackie’s allegations of gang rape at the University of Virginia. “It was the worst day of my professional life,” Woods said.
Failure and Its Consequences
Rolling Stone‘s repudiation of the main narrative in “A Rape on Campus” is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed 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.
In late March, after a four-month investigation, the Charlottesville, Va., police department said that it had “exhausted all investigative leads” and had concluded, “There is no substantive basis to support the account alleged in the Rolling Stone article.”3
The story’s blowup comes as another shock to journalism’s credibility amid head-swiveling change in the media industry. The particulars of Rolling Stone‘s failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail.
As at other once-robust print magazines and newspapers, Rolling Stone‘s editorial staff has shrunk in recent years as print advertising revenue has fallen and shifted online. The magazine’s full-time editorial ranks, not including art or photo staff, have contracted by about 25 percent since 2008. Yet Rolling Stone continues to invest in professional fact-checkers and to fund time-consuming investigations like Erdely’s. The magazine’s records and interviews with participants show that the failure of “A Rape on Campus” was not due to a lack of resources. The problem was methodology, compounded by an environment where several journalists with decades of collective experience failed to surface and debate problems about their reporting or to heed the questions they did receive from a fact-checking colleague.
Erdely 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.
There has been other collateral damage. “It’s completely tarnished our reputation,” said Stephen Scipione, the chapter president of Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity Jackie named as the site of her alleged assault. “It’s completely destroyed a semester of our lives, specifically mine. It’s put us in the worst position possible in our community here, in front of our peers and in the classroom.”
The university has also suffered. Rolling Stone‘s account linked UVA’s fraternity culture to a horrendous crime and portrayed the administration as neglectful. Some UVA administrators whose actions in and around Jackie’s case were described in the story were depicted unflatteringly and, they say, falsely. Allen W. Groves, the University dean of students, and Nicole Eramo, an assistant dean of students, separately wrote to the authors of this report that the story’s account of their actions was inaccurate.4
In retrospect, Dana, the managing editor, who has worked at Rolling Stone since 1996, said the story’s breakdown reflected both an “individual failure” and “procedural failure, an institutional failure. … Every single person at every level of this thing had opportunities to pull the strings a little harder, to question things a little more deeply, and that was not done.”
Yet the editors and Erdely have concluded that their main fault was to be too accommodating of Jackie because she described herself as the survivor of a terrible sexual assault. Social scientists, psychologists and trauma specialists who support rape survivors have impressed upon journalists the need to respect the autonomy of victims, to avoid re-traumatizing them and to understand that rape survivors are as reliable in their testimony as other crime victims. These insights clearly influenced Erdely, Woods and Dana. “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” Woods said. “We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”
Erdely added: “If this story was going to be about Jackie, I can’t think of many things that we would have been able to do differently. … Maybe the discussion should not have been so much about how to accommodate her but should have been about whether she would be in this story at all.” Erdely’s reporting led her to other, adjudicated cases of rape at the university that could have illustrated her narrative, although none was as shocking and dramatic as Jackie’s.
Yet the explanation that Rolling Stone failed because it deferred to a victim cannot adequately account for what went wrong. Erdely’s reporting records and interviews with participants make clear that the magazine did not pursue important reporting paths even when Jackie had made no request that they refrain. The editors made judgments about attribution, fact-checking and verification that greatly increased their risks of error but had little or nothing to do with protecting Jackie’s position.
It would be unfortunate if Rolling Stone‘s failure were to deter journalists from taking on high-risk investigations of rape in which powerful individuals or institutions may wish to avoid scrutiny but where the facts may be underdeveloped. There is clearly a need for a more considered understanding and debate among journalists and others about the best practices for reporting on rape survivors, as well as on sexual assault allegations that have not been adjudicated. This report will suggest ways forward. It will also seek to clarify, however, why Rolling Stone‘s failure with “A Rape on Campus” need not have happened, even accounting for the magazine’s sensitivity to Jackie’s position. That is mainly a story about reporting and editing.
‘How Else Do You Suggest I Find It Out?’
By the time Rolling Stone‘s editors assigned an article on campus sexual assault to Erdely in the spring of 2014, high-profile rape cases at Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Vanderbilt and Florida State had been in the headlines for months. The Office of Civil Rights at the federal Department of Education was leaning on colleges to reassess and improve their policies. Across the country, college administrators had to adjust to stricter federal oversight as well as to a new generation of student activists, including women who declared openly that they had been raped at school and had not received justice.
There were numerous reports of campus assault that had been mishandled by universities. At Columbia, an aggrieved student dragged a mattress around campus to call attention to her account of assault and injustice. The facts in these cases were sometimes disputed, but they had generated a wave of campus activism. “My original idea,” Dana said, was “to look at one of these cases and have the story be more about the process of what happens when an assault is reported and the sort of issues it brings up.”
Jackie’s story seemed a powerful candidate for such a narrative. Yet once she heard the story, Erdely struggled to decide how much she could independently verify the details Jackie provided without jeopardizing Jackie’s cooperation. In the end, the reporter relied heavily on Jackie for help in getting access to corroborating evidence and interviews. Erdely asked Jackie for introductions to friends and family. She asked for text messages to confirm parts of Jackie’s account, for records from Jackie’s employment at the aquatic center and for health records. She even asked to examine the bloodstained red dress Jackie said she had worn on the night she said she was attacked.
Jackie gave the reporter some help. She provided emails from a pool supervisor as evidence of her employment there. She introduced Erdely to Rachel Soltis, a freshman-year suitemate. Soltis confirmed that in January 2013, four months after the alleged attack, Jackie had told her that she had been gang-raped.
Yet Jackie could also be hard to pin down. Other interviews Jackie said she would facilitate never materialized. “I felt frustrated, but I didn’t think she didn’t want to produce” corroboration, Erdely said. Eventually, Jackie told Erdely that her mother had thrown away the red dress. She also said that her mother would be willing to talk to Erdely, but the reporter said that when she called and left messages several times, the mother did not respond.
There were a number of ways that Erdely might have reported further, on her own, to verify what Jackie had told her. Jackie told the writer that one of her rapists had been part of a small discussion group in her anthropology class. Erdely might have tried to verify independently that there was such a group and to identify the young man Jackie described. She might have examined Phi Kappa Psi’s social media for members she could interview and for evidence of a party on the night Jackie described. Erdely might have looked for students who worked at the aquatic center and sought out clues about the lifeguard Jackie had described. Any one of these and other similar reporting paths might have led to discoveries that would have caused Rolling Stone to reconsider its plans. But three failures of reporting effort stand out. They involve basic, even routine journalistic practice – not special investigative effort. And if these reporting pathways had been followed, Rolling Stone very likely would have avoided trouble.
Three friends and a ‘shit show’
During their first interview, Jackie told Erdely that after she escaped the fraternity where seven men, egged on by her date, had raped her, she called three friends for help.
She described the two young men and one woman – now former friends, she told Erdely – as Ryan, Alex and Kathryn. She gave first names only, according to Erdely’s notes. She said they met her in the early hours of Sept. 29, 2012, on the campus grounds. Jackie said she was “crying and crying” at first and that all she could communicate was that “something bad” had happened. She said her friends understood that she had been sexually assaulted. (In interviews for this report, Ryan and Alex said that Jackie told them that she had been forced to perform oral sex on multiple men.) In Jackie’s account to Erdely, Ryan urged her to go to the university women’s center or a hospital for treatment. But Alex and Kathryn worried that if she reported a rape, their social lives would be affected. “She’s going to be the girl who cried ‘rape’ and we’ll never be allowed into any frat party again,” Jackie recalled Kathryn saying.
Jackie spoke of Ryan sympathetically, but the scene she painted for Rolling Stone‘s writer was unflattering to all three former friends. Journalistic practice – and basic fairness – require that if a reporter intends to publish derogatory information about anyone, he or she should seek that person’s side of the story.
Erdely said that while