'Rolling Stone' Retracts U.Va. Gang Rape Article

April 6, 2015

Rolling Stone on Sunday evening formally retracted a much discredited November article about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia. The magazine announced its retraction in releasing a report prepared by officials of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism that Rolling Stone commissioned when numerous questions were raised about the accuracy of the article, "A Rape on Campus," which almost immediately caused a sensation.

The report outlines numerous journalistic failings by Rolling Stone -- most of which provide more detail on previously discussed actions (or failure to take actions), such as not reaching out to people who might have discredited the account.

The Columbia report strongly suggests that if those actions were taken, the magazine might have had serious doubts prior to publication. The report also notes that some University of Virginia officials strongly dispute the way their actions were portrayed in the article. Much of the public stance of U.Va. since November has been not to dispute particulars of the article, but to focus on sexual assault and sexual harassment issues, which university leaders have repeatedly said they believe to be real, regardless of the magazine article.

The statement from Rolling Stone specifically apologized to people at U.Va., including the fraternity named as the site of the alleged rape. "We would like to apologize to our readers and to all of those who were damaged by our story and the ensuing fallout, including members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and U.Va. administrators and students. Sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses, and it is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward. It saddens us to think that their willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings," the statement said.

The Columbia report, referring to the name the magazine used for the alleged victim, said that "the magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of report that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine's editors to reconsider publishing Jackie's narrative so prominently, if at all." The magazine hoped that the article "would sound an alarm about campus sexual assault and would challenge Virginia and other universities to do better," the report said. "Instead, the magazine's failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations." 

Teresa A. Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia, issued a statement on the report that said in part: “Rolling Stone’s story ‘A Rape on Campus’ did nothing to combat sexual violence, and it damaged serious efforts to address the issue. Irresponsible journalism unjustly damaged the reputations of many innocent individuals and the University of Virginia. Rolling Stone falsely accused some University of Virginia students of heinous, criminal acts, and falsely depicted others as indifferent to the suffering of their classmate. The story portrayed university staff members as manipulative and callous toward victims of sexual assault. Such false depictions reinforce the reluctance sexual assault victims already feel about reporting their experience, lest they be doubted or ignored."

Here are two articles from Inside Higher Ed with background. This article from November describes the pressure on the university to do more about sexual assault issues at a time that many on campus and elsewhere took the magazine piece at face value (although it should be noted that some observers quite early on did not). This article, from just two weeks later, describes the way many people concerned with sexual assault on campus feared, and were seeing, a backlash as the Rolling Stone article was discredited.

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