Rolling Stone retracts UVA gang rape story: A view from Retraction Watch

Rolling-Stone-LOGO-2Rolling Stone has officially retracted its blockbuster story on a gruesome gang rape at the University of Virginia, “A Rape on Campus.”

The story, which followed the case of a UVA student named Jackie, was retracted last night after a 12,700-word report was released by the Columbia Journalism School and published on Rolling Stone’s website. The CJR review uncovered a breakdown in very basic reporting principles, including pressing hard for outside confirmation of difficult stories and sending “no surprises” letters to every person being portrayed in an unflattering light. The report was accompanied by an apology from managing editor Will Dana, who penned the editor’s note we discussed in December. The writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, also released a statement, which read in part:

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.

Retraction Watch readers who are wondering why we’re covering this case will find an answer in Jonathan Mahler’s New York Times article:

It is hardly unusual for journalists to rely on members of advocacy groups for help finding characters, but it is a practice that requires extra vigilance. “You’re in a zone there where you have to be careful,” said Nicholas Lemann, a professor at Columbia and the journalism school’s former dean.

Mr. Lemann distributes a document called “The Journalistic Method” in one of his classes. It is a play on the term “the scientific method,” but in some respects, investigating a story is not so different from investigating a scientific phenomenon. “It’s all about very rigorous hypothesis testing: What is my hypothesis and how would I disprove it?” he said. “That’s what the journalist didn’t do in this case.”

During the reporting and editing of “A Rape on Campus,” the journalist, editors, and fact checkers failed their sources and their readers in the same way we often see scientists go down. There was no intentional falsification or plagiarism. Instead, an investigator was so driven by the goal of proving a hypothesis that they took shortcuts and didn’t question their baseline assumptions.

Confirmation bias is alive and well in journalism, as much as it is in science, because it is a natural part of human cognition. We can never rely on one source, or one study, but instead must build a case, fighting to find any contradictory evidence available.

“A Rape on Campus” is essentially, according to the CJR report, a one-source story. Erdely failed to speak with students she ‘quoted’ in her story, so their words came only via Jackie, though the Rolling Stone story doesn’t make that clear. Those students came forward to the Washington Post to say that the details of the night were misrepresented in the Rolling Stone story, and that they had never been contacted by Erdely. The fraternity in Erdely’s story, Phi Kappa Psi, is suing Rolling Stone over the article.

During her investigation, Erdely uncovered other rape victims who had reported their cases to the school, leading to documents and outside sources that might have helped verify the victims’ claims. She and her editors decided to stick with Jackie, whose dramatic story would, as former executive editor of the New York Times Bill Keller pointed out, “scream louder to be heard above the crowd.”

Sheila Coronel, an author of the report and dean of academic affairs at Columbia Journalism School, warned about confirmation bias at a Monday press conference on the report:

If a story fits into a prevailing narrative, you should be even more skeptical about it.

Columbia also made clear that Rolling Stone, not Jackie, was responsible for this breakdown. Here’s Steve Coll, a report author and the dean of Columbia Journalism School, at the press conference:

We found that this failure was not the subject’s or source’s fault, as a matter of journalism. It was product of failed methodology, and we didn’t feel that her role in the story should be the subject of a report that was seeking accountability for a failure of journalism…it was the collective fault of the reporter, the editor, the editor’s supervisor, and the fact checking department.

There will be fallout from this, both for journalists and survivors – though Rolling Stone has stated that no one at the magazine will be fired. A high-profile case of rape accusations falling apart lends credence to the false idea that many alleged rape victims are lying. Social scientists at UMass Boston place the rate of false report between two and 10 percent.

Rape victims will almost certainly be less likely to talk to reporters, especially after Rolling Stone’s publisher Jann Wenner called Jackie “a really expert fabulist storyteller,” placing the blame not on his massive editorial operation but on a 21 year old college student who, according to her roommate at the time, had clearly undergone some kind of trauma.

There’s also concern this might make victims less likely to come forward to authorities — this on top of the tragically low rates of reporting. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that only 36% of rape victims report the crime to police.

But we hope the fallout for journalists goes in a more positive direction, because the kindest thing a reporter can do for someone sharing their story is insist on basic reporting. Alleged victims, like any human subject, must be handled with care, sensitivity, and discretion. But they still must be investigated from every angle before a new discovery is declared.

It’s not cruel to build a solid foundation for a heavy story to stand on. It’s the goddamned job.

11 thoughts on “Rolling Stone retracts UVA gang rape story: A view from Retraction Watch”

  1. The apology by Erdely seems sincere, but the comments by the publisher blaming Jackie feel like a total abdication of responsibility on his part. I initially read his comments as coming before publication of the the review by Columbia Journalism School, and had trouble believing he was so obtuse as to have made them. That he made those comments after the review makes me think he is in serious denial.

  2. This is one lawsuit that I would like to see the plaintiff win. I don’t feel this way very often, but the American media is totally out of control.

  3. “A high-profile case of rape accusations falling apart lends credence to the false idea that many alleged rape victims are lying. Social scientists at UMass Boston place the rate of false report between two and 10 percent.”

    In their original analysis, they looked into 136 cases of alleged sexual assault at a university campus, and found the following:

    “Of the 136 cases of sexual assault 8 (5.9%) were coded as false reports, 61 (44.9%) did not proceed to any prosecution or disciplinary action, 48 (35.3%) were referred for prosecution or disciplinary action, and 19 (13.9%) contained insufficient information to be coded”

    The way they define “false report” means that it’s actually the lower bound for the number of false accusations. They found that 5.9% of the allegations were provably false, but a further 44.9% of cases did not lead to any prosecution or disciplinary action. This second category probably also contains false allegations, even if it was not possible to establish that. The remaining two categories may also include false reports.

    So, I don’t think it’s possible to establish the true rate of false reports based on studies like this. The true rate may well be considerably higher than 2-10 percent. Furthermore, these figures are based on cases that were reported to authorities, and therefore aren’t generalizable to the total “population” of rapes or sexual assaults, given that a large number of alleged sexual crimes are not reported to authorities.

    1. Going from 5.9% provably false reports to the conclusion that the true total number of false accusations lies in the 2-10% spectrum would seem to leave a very generous margin of error. I don’t “get” statistics to the point where I can determine if they are right to add this margin, do you have any thoughts on their choice of methods to justify the hypothesis that the number should be higher?

  4. Any physical assault, sexual or otherwise, leads to a deep emotional reaction. Of course, if Rolling Stone’s objective is to sell this emotional story, then eg the commenter with ‘… the American media is out of control’ is right. However, it is better that news media bring these kind of stories out, err at times and then put the record straight. That is better than suppressing them. Any physical assault is abhorrent, and should be put to shame. So, please, rein in the lawyers.

    1. To be falsely accused of committing physical assault – rape, especially – is equally abhorrent.

  5. “The apology by Erdely seems sincere”???

    Except that the apology notably omitted the main group of people to whom she should be apologizing: the fraternity she accused of gang rape. My cynical side wants to say that this is because there is a possible lawsuit pending against her and Rolling Stone by the fraternity, so apologizing to them could be seen as admitting that you defamed them.

    1. It seemed sincere in admitting her errors, but you are quite right to point out the omission of an apology to the fraternity. I guess it is my set of blinders that had me more upset about the publisher slamming Jackie than the damage done to the fraternity.

  6. I’d highly recommend having a look at the postings of Richard Bradley, esp. regarding the need to proof an underlying assumption (here: rape culture, see ). He was (one of) the first to spot inaccuracies with the Rolling Stone article and he addresses this issue, even when the CJR report does not. There’s also an interesting article by Ashe Snow pointing to earlier articles of Sabrina Rubin Erdely that might have similar problems ( ). If you’d find a case of scientific misconduct in science, you’d hardly stop at the one case where you have suspicions. You’d likely look at earlier work as well. I hope something similar happens in this case as well.

    Rape is a horrible crime and it deserves to be punished to the fullest extend. But only where it actually happened. The horrible nature of the crime does not excuse trying to promote a narrative that makes rape “the norm” as “rape culture” in an effort to raise awareness of said crime. It’s a totally stupid and horrid suggestion that rape is in any way or form accepted in any civilized society. Nor does it justify ignoring the damage false accusations inflict.

    It’s telling that Sabrina Rubin Erdely apologized to a couple of people/groups and tries to keep her role of activist, but totally ignores the students of the fraternity she accused of being rapists in her article.

    And as for silencing the voices of actual rape victims — personally, if I were a victim I’d likely be more pissed at Erdely and her “source” for turning a horrible crime by individuals into a political football, or trying to gain publicity/attention and make a career with it. And personally I don’t understand why actual victims would identify with false accusers and be discouraged.

    Oh, and regarding the Sheila Coronel comment: “If a story fits into a prevailing narrative, you should be even more skeptical about it.”, again I’d point to Bradley who wrote on November 24th, 2014: “And because I was inclined to believe it, I abandoned my critical judgment. I lowered my guard. The lesson I learned: One must be most critical, in the best sense of that word, about what one is already inclined to believe.” ( ).

    Personally, it think the major breakdown in this event was the view that you have to listen and belief when it comes to sexual assault/rape. That might be true for the family and close friends of the alleged victims. But journalists have to skeptical (“in the best sense of that word”). The police has to be skeptical (“in the best sense of that word”). Judges have to be skeptical (“in the best sense of that word”). This does not mean that these people have to be assholes or engage in (alleged) victim blaming, far from it (and these behaviors should be prohibited). But they have to check the facts. They must “listen and question”. Especially when you consider the consequences of what happens when people are falsely accused of rape.

  7. I feel like Erdely haven’t apologize anything.

    “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.”

    How in the world is putting word in mouth of people you didn’t even interviewed is helping the victim ? And the bad false photoshop, is it helping ? What about the fact that Jackie just tell this journalist that the quote from the dean were false ? What about the fact that a woman with breast cancer get a s—storm on her ?

    This is not a ‘failed methodology’ or lack of skepticism but data fabrication (quote that never existed and image). And the apologies didn’t aknowledged that, there is no apologies at all, this is just smoke and mirror to try to dodge the incoming bullet.

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