Is Rolling Stone retracting its story on UVA sexual assault?

Rolling-Stone-LOGO-2Rolling Stone has published an editor’s note that calls into question their November 19 story, “A Rape on Campus,” which details a UVA student’s alleged gang rape at a fraternity party and her subsequent struggle to get justice from the school.

Shortly after publication, the magazine was criticized for not seeking a statement from the alleged perpetrators, despite the fact that they were not named in the story, and for relying almost entirely on the testimony from one individual.

Here is managing editor Will Dana’s editor’s note:

To Our Readers:

Last month, Rolling Stone published a story titled “A Rape on Campus” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, which described a brutal gang rape of a woman named Jackie at a University of Virginia fraternity house; the university’s failure to respond to this alleged assault – and the school’s troubling history of indifference to many other instances of alleged sexual assaults. The story generated worldwide headlines and much soul-searching at UVA. University president Teresa Sullivan promised a full investigation and also to examine the way the school responds to sexual assault allegations.

Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her. In the months Erdely spent reporting the story, Jackie neither said nor did anything that made Erdely, or Rolling Stone‘s editors and fact-checkers, question Jackie’s credibility. Her friends and rape activists on campus strongly supported Jackie’s account. She had spoken of the assault in campus forums. We reached out to both the local branch and the national leadership of the fraternity where Jackie said she was attacked. They responded that they couldn’t confirm or deny her story but had concerns about the evidence.

In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.

Will Dana
Managing Editor

Several news outlets have reported this as a retraction, although the note doesn’t use that word. If this were a scientific paper, the note from Dana seems more like an Expression of Concern which, according to guidelines by the Council of Scientific Editors and others, describes potential problems without withdrawing the piece from publication.

It is unfortunate that this note gives no details regarding the “discrepancies,” and that it fails to take responsibility for any errors in the piece, instead blaming them on an alleged trauma victim. The Washington Post spoke with Jackie and her friends, as well as one of the men Jackie told the Post was involved in the attack, and reported that several details were in question, including the date of the party and whether the man was a member of the fraternity.

Regardless of this specific case, the evidence for a sexual assault crisis on campuses is incontrovertible: 20% of women will be sexually assaulted in college, and a quarter of the victims claim their attacker was a member of a fraternity, according to research funded by the Department of Justice.

Jackie told the Post that she had asked to be left out of the piece, and that the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, refused to remove her. This goes against Columbia Journalism School’s guidelines for reporting on sexual assault, which caution reporters to “Respect a potential interviewee’s right to say no.”

A key point here is that victims of trauma encode their memories in a fragmented and blurry way. This does not mean that they should not be believed, but rather that journalists and editors seeking to tell an accurate story must engage in thorough, careful reporting to ensure that victims and readers alike can trust the publication.

Speaking of unreliable memories: the Washington Post offered a vague excuse for deleting their allegation that Jackie had never met the man she claims orchestrated the attack:

The Post’s correction reads:

Clarification: An earlier version of this story did not properly attribute in one instance a statement about whether Jackie had met the man she named to friends as one of her attackers. The story has been updated.

Update, 5:10 p.m. Eastern 12/05/14: Will Dana has responded to criticism with the following series of tweets:

([Updated, 10 p.m. Eastern, 12/5/14: Rolling Stone seemed to have retracted at least one article before, but see clarifying comment from Narad below about that article’s disappearance in 2010.])

Update, 9 a.m. Eastern, 12/7/14: Last night, Rolling Stone changed their editors note without noting the correction or changing the date on the article. The new note reflects Dana’s assertion that the responsibility for any errors lie with the magazine:

Last month, Rolling Stone published a story entitled A Rape on Campus which described a brutal gang rape of a woman named Jackie during a party at a University of Virginia fraternity house, the University’s failure to respond to this alleged assault – and the school’s troubling history of indifference to many other instances of alleged sexual assaults. The story generated worldwide headlines and much soul-searching at UVA. University president Teresa Sullivan promised a full investigation and also to examine the way the school investigates sexual assault allegations.

Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her. In the months Erdely reported the story, Jackie said or did nothing that made her, or Rolling Stone‘s editors and fact-checkers, question her credibility. Jackie’s friends and rape activists on campus strongly supported her account. She had spoken of the assault in  campus forums. We reached out to both the local branch and the national leadership of Phi Psi, the fraternity where Jackie said she was attacked. They responded that they couldn’t confirm or deny her story but that they had questions about the evidence.

In the face of new information reported by the Washington Post and other news outlets, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account. The fraternity has issued a formal statement denying the assault and asserting that there was no “date function or formal event” on the night in question. Jackie herself is now unsure if the man she says lured her into the room where the rape occurred, identified in the story, as “Drew,” was a Phi Psi brother. According to the Washington Post, “Drew” actually belongs to a different fraternity and when contacted by the paper, he denied knowing Jackie. Jackie told Rolling Stone that after she was assaulted, she ran into “Drew” at a UVA pool where they both worked as lifeguards. In its statement, the Phi Psi says none of its members worked at the pool in the fall of 2012. A friend of Jackie’s (who we were told would not speak to Rolling Stone) told the Washington Post that he found Jackie that night a mile from the school’s fraternities. She did not appear to be “physically injured at the time” but was shaken.  She told him that that she had been forced to have oral sex with a group of men at a fraternity party, but he does not remember her identifying a specific house. Other friends of Jackie’s told the Washington Post that they now have doubts about her narrative, but Jackie told the Washington Post that she firmly stands by the account she gave to Erdely.

We published the article with the firm belief that it was accurate. Given all of these reports, however, we have come to the conclusion that we were mistaken in honoring Jackie’s request to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. In trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault, we made a judgment – the kind of judgment reporters and editors make every day. We should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story. These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie. We apologize to anyone who was affected by the story and we will continue to investigate the events of that evening.

5 thoughts on “Is Rolling Stone retracting its story on UVA sexual assault?”

  1. While any sexual assault is intolerable, saying the evidence for a “crises” on college campuses is incontrovertible is simply incorrect. Other studies done by the National Crime Victimization survey, which is the gold standard for measuring crimes that are often not reported, places the number closer to 1 in a 1000 rather than 1 in 5 (http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21621819-californias-new-standard-consent-future-america-yes-means-yes-says-mr). While efforts should be made to reduce that number further, using controversial statistics to support the notion of a crisis only discourages productive dialogue about what can be an extremely sensitive issue.

  2. Rolling Stone did not in fact retract “Deadly Immunity” (it’s still right here); only Salon did. From that page:

    Editor’s Note: The link to this much-debated story by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was inadvertently broken during our redesign in the spring of 2010. (We did not remove the story from the site, as some have incorrectly alleged, nor ever contemplated doing so.) The link to the original story is now restored, including the corrections we posted at the time and the subsequent editorial we published about the ensuing controversy.

  3. Nah, Rolling Stone hasn’t retracted the article as such but they are certainly attempting to cover their asses for the shoddy and irresponsible “journalism” they practiced when writing, editing and publishing this smear article in an attempt to forestall any lawsuits from the university, fraternity and the alleged “rapists”. Not that I think it will help them but here we are.

    But that seems to be the way to do journalism these days. Publish defamatory clickbait and then when the shit hits the fan write a frankly pathetic “apology” and hope it all just goes away.

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