Rolling Stone magazine failed to follow basic journalistic safeguards in publishing a story about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house, according to an outside review of the matter released on Sunday.
The discredited story was intended to call attention to the issue of sexual violence on college campuses, but instead "the magazine's failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations," a team from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism concluded in its critique.
It noted that social scientists say false allegations are estimated to account for 2 to 8 percent of all rape reports.
The Rolling Stone article, written by contributing editor Sabrina Rubin Erdely and published in November, detailed an alleged 2012 gang rape that a first-year student identified as "Jackie" said she had endured at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. It also accused the university of tolerating a culture that ignored sexual violence against women.
But in December, after coming under a barrage of questions about the story's veracity, Rolling Stone apologized for "discrepancies" in the account and admitted that it never sought comment from seven men accused of the alleged rape.
"Rolling Stone's repudiation of the main narrative in 'A Rape on Campus' is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable," the Columbia team wrote in the report, which the magazine requested and published on its website.
"The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking."
The review of the story was led by Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School.
In an editor's note printed at the top of the report, Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana said the magazine was officially retracting the article and apologized "to all of those who were damaged by our story and the ensuing fallout."
It is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward, Dana wrote, "and it saddens us to think that their willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings."
The magazine's founding editor, Jann Wenner, said in an interview with the New York Times on Sunday the botched story was an isolated episode and that Erdely would continue to write for the magazine. He also said neither Dana nor Sean Woods, who edited the article, would lose their jobs.
While Dana said in his note that Rolling Stone would commit itself to following "a series of recommendations about journalistic practices that are spelled out in the report," the report itself said "Rolling Stone's senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story's failure does not require them to change their editorial systems."
No red flags raised
The report quoted Erdely as acknowledging to Columbia's review that she and her editors had perhaps been too accommodating of the alleged victim and willing to take her account as a rape victim at face value.
"In retrospect, I wish somebody had pushed me harder," Erdely said.
But the report said other mistakes throughout the editorial process failed to raise the kinds of red flags that should have drawn attention to fundamental problems with the story.
In particular, the report faulted Erdely and her editors for failing to check Jackie's account against other sources, including her alleged attackers and three friends depicted in the story as unsympathetic to her.
A spokesman for Phi Kappa Psi could not be reached immediately for comment. However, the report quoted campus chapter president Stephen Scipione as saying the magazine had "tarnished our reputation."
"It's completely destroyed a semester of our lives, specifically mine," Scipione told the reviewers. "It's put us in the worst position possible in our community here, in front of our peers and in the classroom."
Rolling Stone has not been sued by the fraternity, and Reuters was unable to determine if it planned to bring court action.
Legal experts said the report's findings could leave Rolling Stone more vulnerable to a libel case, but they cast doubt on the likelihood of such a lawsuit.
The Columbia review said fallout from the story had already caused considerable damage to the magazine, and the news media in general.
"The story's blowup comes as another shock to journalism's credibility," the report said, adding that the incident highlights the need for newsrooms to reaffirm the best journalistic practices.
In particular, the report recommends stronger newsroom policies on the use of pseudonyms, on checking information that casts people in a negative light, and on sharing specific details about a report to allow clearer rebuttals.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring also castigated the magazine, saying its failures have "injected doubt at a moment when we are finally building national momentum around efforts to end campus sexual violence."
Attorneys were divided on whether Phi Kappa Psi or its members at the university were in a strong position to bring lawsuits against Rolling Stone. Bruce Sanford, a Washington media lawyer with the firm BakerHostetler, said all they would have to do is prove negligence on the magazine's part.
Duke University Law School professor Stuart Benjamin pointed out that the story identified none of the alleged attackers by name, which could undermine any libel case. For the fraternity as a whole, he said he didn't think "the lawsuit would get you any more vindication than you've already gotten."