CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Rolling Stone magazine’s expose of what it called a culture of sex assaults at the University of Virginia was rife with bad journalistic practice, and “Jackie,” the student at the centre of the story, is not to blame for the magazine’s failures, Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll said Monday.
“We do disagree with any suggestion that this was Jackie’s fault,” Coll said at a news conference in New York.
Rolling Stone pledged to review its editorial practices but won’t fire anyone after the leading journalism school issued a blistering critique of how it reported and edited a discredited article about an alleged gang rape at the university.
The Columbia review was undertaken at Rolling Stone’s request. It presented a broad indictment of the magazine’s handling of a story that had horrified readers, unleashed protests at the university’s campus and sparked a national discussion about sexual assaults on university campuses.
It came two weeks after the Charlottesville police department said it had found no evidence to back the claims of the alleged victim, who said she was raped by seven men at a social function at the fraternity house two years earlier.
Coll said the problem of sex assaults on campus is important to the public and that journalists should strive to hold institutions accountable. But Rolling Stone failed to apply basic standards such as attributing facts to their sources.
Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity at the centre of the article, said it plans “to pursue all available legal action against the magazine.”
“The report by Columbia University’s School of Journalism demonstrates the reckless nature in which Rolling Stone researched and failed to verify facts in its article that erroneously accused Phi Kappa Psi of crimes its members did not commit,” said Stephen Scipione, president of the school’s chapter of Phi Kappa Psi.
Fraternities are social organization for males that often have a large influence on life at U.S. universities and campuses.
The journalism school’s analysis was accompanied by a statement from Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana apologizing for the failures and retracting the November 2014 story. Some University of Virginia students said none of that will erase the article’s repercussions.
Maggie Rossberg, a second-year nursing student , said her chief concern is the effect the journalistic lapses will have on rape victims. “This is probably going to discourage other sexual assault survivors from coming forward,” Rossberg said.
Rolling Stone had asked for the independent review after numerous news media outlets found flaws with the story. The article quoted Jackie as saying that the attack was orchestrated by a fraternity member who worked with her at the school’s aquatic centre.
She also said she immediately told three friends about the attack, but she said they were generally unsupportive, and that at least two encouraged her to keep quiet to protect their social standing.
The article’s author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, also apologized, saying she would not repeat the mistakes she made when writing the article, “A Rape on Campus.”
The magazine’s publisher, Jann S. Wenner, told The New York Times that Erdely would continue to write for the magazine and that neither her editor nor Dana would be fired.
The report found three major flaws in the magazine’s reporting methodology: that Erdely did not try to contact the three friends, instead taking Jackie’s word for it that one of them refused to talk; that she failed to give enough details of the alleged assault when she contacted the fraternity for comment, which made it difficult for the organization to investigate; and that Rolling Stone did not try hard enough to find the person Jackie accused of orchestrating the assault.
If the fraternity had had more information, it might have been able to explain earlier that it did not hold a social function the night of the attack and that none of its members worked at the aquatic centre, the report noted.
Dana and Erdely said they had been too accommodating of requests from Jackie that limited their ability to report the story because she said she was a rape victim and asked them not to contact others to corroborate, the report said.
However, Columbia’s report said, Rolling Stone also failed to investigate reporting leads even when Jackie had not specifically asked them not to.
In her statement, U.Virginia. President Teresa A. Sullivan said the article hurt efforts to fight sexual violence, tarred the school’s reputation, and falsely accused some students “of heinous, criminal acts and falsely depicted others as indifferent to the suffering of their classmate.”