The University of Virginia student at the center of a discredited Rolling Stone rape story was not to blame when a “systemic” failure of journalism led the magazine to publish her unverified account of the alleged attack, the authors of an outside investigation into the story said Monday.
“This failure was not the subject or source’s fault as a matter of journalism,” Columbia University Journalism School dean Steve Coll, who co-authored the report, said at a news conference in New York. “It was a product of failed methodology. ... We disagree with any suggestion that this was Jackie’s fault,” referring to the student, who was only identified by her first name.
The public dissection of the independent report came as criticism against Rolling Stone mounted, with the fraternity accused in the story announcing Monday it would pursue “all available legal action.”
Rolling Stone on Sunday night retracted and apologized for the November cover story as soon as the Columbia report was released. The Columbia team reiterated Monday that it found deep flaws in the reporting and editing of the woman’s narrative of her allegedly being gang raped at a University of Virginia fraternity.
“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,” Stephen Scipione, president of the Virginia Alpha chapter of that fraternity, said in a statement provided to the Los Angeles Times. “This type of reporting serves as a sad example of a serious decline of journalistic standards.”
Questions about the authenticity of the rape story had emerged almost immediately after publication, although the school took the accusations seriously and brought in the police. In the end, neither police investigators nor the Columbia University report found evidence that such a rape happened at the fraternity.
“The abject failure of accountability in journalism that led to Rolling Stone’s ‘A Rape on Campus’ article has done untold damage to the University of Virginia and our Commonwealth as a whole,” Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said in a Monday statement. “This false account has been an unnecessary and dangerous distraction from real efforts to combat sexual violence on our college campuses.”
After retracting the rape story, the magazine removed it from its website and replaced it with the 12,644-word independent review by Columbia.
The review, which also found serious lapses in basic journalistic procedure, had been requested by Rolling Stone in December as doubts grew.
Coll said the report’s authors hoped to construct a “case study” that would be useful for journalists, journalism students and the public “to see exactly how the editorial process broke down.”
He said that breakdown was not the result of the account Jackie gave, but of the magazine’s “failed methodology” in not confirming its basic accuracy.
Sheila Coronel, a dean of academic affairs at Columbia University and a co-author of the report, said the Columbia team decided not to fully identify the student known as Jackie even though her allegations of a gang rape could not be proved.
An attorney for Jackie declined to comment Monday. Jackie did not cooperate with either the police investigation or the Columbia review into the Rolling Stone story.
Although Rolling Stone’s systemic breakdowns in verification and attribution marked one of the ugliest blemishes in the magazine’s sometimes storied history, Rolling Stone’s publisher had no plans to fire any of the editors or the writer involved with the story, a spokeswoman said.
Through that spokeswoman, Rolling Stone’s publisher, Jann S. Wenner, and its managing editor, Will Dana, declined requests for interviews with the Los Angeles Times on Monday.
In an interview with The New York Times on Sunday, Wenner had called Jackie “a really expert fabulist storyteller,” adding that he was not trying to blame Jackie, “but obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.”
The Columbia report’s authors found no instances of fabrication or lying on the part of Rolling Stone.
Rather than blame a single person for the story’s failure — such as the author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely — the Columbia authors instead detailed a systemic breakdown of journalism at Rolling Stone.
“The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking,” wrote the Columbia authors — deans Coronel, Coll and Derek Kravitz, a postgraduate research scholar at the journalism school.
“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.”
Through a spokeswoman, Erdely declined an interview request Sunday evening, but she apologized in a statement after the Columbia report was published, calling the last few months “among the most painful of my life.”
She apologized “to Rolling Stone’s readers, to my Rolling Stone editors and colleagues, to the UVA community, and to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.”
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