How Rolling Stone Failed on Rape Story, According to Columbia Report

Rolling Stone has now retracted a controversial article about campus rape.

ByABC News
April 6, 2015, 12:31 PM

— -- The publication of a now-discredited Rolling Stone article about an alleged rape on a college campus could have been avoided, according to an independent review that examined the reporting process after questions about the veracity of the article’s claims came into question.

The story, which was published by the magazine in November and just retracted, used allegations made by a student the publication called “Jackie” as part of a larger narrative about how colleges report campus rape. Subsequent investigations, both by the police and other reporters, into Jackie’s claims that she was gang-raped after being brought to a University of Virginia fraternity party by one of the club’s members could not corroborate her story.

At the request of the magazine, two deans from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a postgraduate research scholar at Columbia University in New York reviewed the reporting process after it became clear that there were inaccuracies in the story written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, a reporter who has been working for the magazine since 2008.

“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 Columbia report, released Sunday and published online, states.

The report listed several actions that Erdely and her editors failed to take:

3 Things the Writer Didn’t Do

1. Jackie told Erdely she had met up with three friends immediately after leaving the fraternity following the alleged attack, with two of the friends warning her against reporting the attack for fear that it would ruin her social life. Erdely did not contact any of these three individuals to verify what Jackie told her they said. Instead, the reporter chose to retell the story that Jackie told her, changing the individuals’ names to pseudonyms.

“They were always on my list” of people Erdely wanted to track down for the story, she told the Columbia reviewers, but was unable to.

2. When she contacted the fraternity that Jackie said was the scene of her alleged attack, the reporter did not give either the chapter president or the national fraternity's national director details about the the account of the alleged gang rape, which prevented the fraternity from directly rebutting that now-disproven reporting. Instead, the fraternity was left saying it was looking into the claims, which the reporter wrongly interpreted as giving credibility to the claim.

3. One of the most glaring oversights, the report states, was that Erdely did not try hard enough to contact the alleged attacker or, beyond that, to make sure that he existed. Jackie would not give the reporter the name of her alleged attacker until after the story was published, but there were other ways Erdely could have verified that he existed, the report said.

The report stated that Jackie regularly used the first name of her alleged attacker but not the last name. She did not give the reporter the alleged attacker's last name until after the story was published.

What Mistakes the Editors Made

1. The Columbia report finds that Erdely’s main editor, Sean Woods, “did not do enough” and did not push her to confirm the account told to her by Jackie. Specifically, they point out the editor’s decision not to push Erdely to speak to the friends whom Jackie said she met after the attack as one of the most glaring mistakes.

2. The magazine’s managing editor, Will Dana, was not aware prior to publication that no one working at the magazine actually knew the attacker’s full name.

PHOTO: Managing Editor at Rolling Stone Will Dana speaks onstage
Managing Editor at Rolling Stone Will Dana speaks onstage at the Norman Mailer Center's Fifth Annual Benefit Gala sponsored by Van Cleef & Arpels at the New York Public Library in New York, Oct. 17, 2013.

Will the Magazine Change?

The reviewers end their report with specific suggestions for what Rolling Stone editors should change, including their standard for using pseudonyms, making sure they check all derogatory claims prior to publication, and that they give institutions enough information when asking for comment so that they can properly confirm or deny the allegations.

In spite of the criticisms of the reporting and editing on this story, the magazine’s managing editor does not believe they need to make dramatic changes.

"It's not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don't think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things," Dana said in a statement included in the report. But Dana said he didn’t do enough to push Erdely for answers. He said, “It's on me."

For her part, Erdely issued an apology, admitting that she “didn’t go far enough to verify [Jackie’s] story.”

When reached by ABC News, Jackie's lawyer had no comment about the Columbia report.