Last July 8, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, a writer for Rolling Stone, telephoned Emily Renda, a rape survivor working on sexual assault issues as a staff member at the University of Virginia. Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show “what it’s like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture,” according to Erdely’s notes of the conversation.
Renda told Erdely that many assaults take place during parties where “the goal is to get everyone blackout drunk.” She continued, “There may be a much darker side of this” at some fraternities. “One girl I worked with closely alleged she was gang-raped in the fall, before rush, and the men who perpetrated it were young guys who were not yet members of the fraternity, and she remembers one of them saying to another … ‘C’mon man, don’t you want to be a brother?’”
Renda added, “And obviously, maybe her memory of it isn’t perfect.”
Erdely’s notes set down her reply: “I tell her that it’s totally plausible.”
Renda put the writer in touch with a rising junior at UVA who would soon be known to millions of Rolling Stone readers as “Jackie,” a shortened version of her true first name. Erdely said later that when she first encountered Jackie, she felt the student “had this stamp of credibility” because a university employee had connected them. Earlier that summer, Renda had even appeared before a Senate committee and had made reference to Jackie’s allegations during her testimony – another apparent sign of the case’s seriousness.
“I’d definitely be interested in sharing my story,” Jackie wrote in an email a few days later.
On July 14, Erdely phoned her. Jackie launched into a vivid account of a monstrous crime. She said, according to Erdely’s notes, that in September 2012, early in her freshman year, a third-year student she knew as a fellow lifeguard at the university’s aquatic center had invited her to “my first fraternity party ever.” After midnight, her date took her upstairs to a darkened bedroom. “I remember looking at the clock and it was 12:52 when we got into the room,” she told Erdely. Her date shut the door behind them. Jackie continued, according to the writer’s notes:
My eyes were adjusting to the dark. And I said his name and turned around. … I heard voices and I started to scream and someone pummeled into me and told me to shut up. And that’s when I tripped and fell against the coffee table and it smashed underneath me and this other boy, who was throwing his weight on top of me. Then one of them grabbed my shoulders. … One of them put his hand over my mouth and I bit him – and he straight-up punched me in the face. … One of them said, ‘Grab its motherfucking leg.’ As soon as they said it, I knew they were going to rape me.
The rest of Jackie’s account was equally precise and horrifying. The lifeguard coached seven boys as they raped her one by one. Erdely hung up the phone “sickened and shaken,” she said. She remembered being “a bit incredulous” about the vividness of some of the details Jackie offered, such as the broken glass from the smashed table. Yet Jackie had been “confident, she was consistent.” (Jackie declined to respond to questions for this report. Her lawyer said it “is in her best interest to remain silent at this time.” The quotations attributed to Jackie here come from notes Erdely said she typed contemporaneously or from recorded interviews.) [Footnote 1]
Between July and October 2014, Erdely said, she interviewed Jackie seven more times. The writer was based in Philadelphia and had been reporting for Rolling Stone since 2008. She specialized in true-crime stories like “The Gangster Princess of Beverly Hills,” about a high-living Korean model and self-styled Samsung heiress accused of transporting 7,000 pounds of marijuana. She had written about pedophile priests and sexual assault in the military. Will Dana, the magazine’s managing editor, considered her “a very thorough and persnickety reporter who’s able to navigate extremely difficult stories with a lot of different points of view.”
Jackie proved to be a challenging source. At times, she did not respond to Erdely’s calls, texts and emails. At two points, the reporter feared Jackie might withdraw her cooperation. Also, Jackie refused to provide Erdely the name of the lifeguard who had organized the attack on her. She said she was still afraid of him. That led to tense exchanges between Erdely and Jackie, but the confrontation ended when Rolling Stone’s editors decided to go ahead without knowing the lifeguard’s name or verifying his existence. After that concession, Jackie cooperated fully until publication.
It was the worst day of my professional life.
Erdely believed firmly that Jackie’s account was reliable. So did her editors and the story’s fact-checker, who spent more than four hours on the telephone with Jackie, reviewing every detail of her experience. “She wasn’t just answering, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ she was correcting me,” the checker said. “She was describing the scene for me in a very vivid way. … I did not have doubt.” (Rolling Stone requested that the checker not be named because she did not have decision-making authority.)
Rolling Stone published “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” on Nov. 19, 2014. It caused a great sensation. “I was shocked to have a story that was going to go viral in this way,” Erdely said. “My phone was ringing off the hook.” The online story ultimately attracted more than 2.7 million views, more than any other feature not about a celebrity that the magazine had ever published.
A week after publication, on the day before Thanksgiving, Erdely spoke with Jackie by phone. “She thanked me many times,” Erdely said. Jackie seemed “adrenaline-charged … feeling really good.”
Erdely chose this moment to revisit the mystery of the lifeguard who had lured Jackie and overseen her assault. Jackie’s unwillingness to name him continued to bother Erdely. Apparently, the man was still dangerous and at large. “This is not going to be published,” the writer said, as she recalled. “Can you just tell me?”
Jackie gave Erdely a name. But as the reporter typed, her fingers stopped. Jackie was unsure how to spell the lifeguard’s last name. Jackie speculated aloud about possible variations.
“An alarm bell went off in my head,” Erdely said. How could Jackie not know the exact name of someone she said had carried out such a terrible crime against her – a man she professed to fear deeply?
Over the next few days, worried about the integrity of her story, the reporter investigated the name Jackie had provided, but she was unable to confirm that he worked at the pool, was a member of the fraternity Jackie had identified or had other connections to Jackie or her description of her assault. She discussed her concerns with her editors. Her work faced new pressures. The writer Richard Bradley had published early if speculative doubts about the plausibility of Jackie’s account. Writers at Slate had challenged Erdely’s reporting during a podcast interview. She also learned that T. Rees Shapiro, a Washington Post reporter, was preparing a story based on interviews at the University of Virginia that would raise serious doubts about Rolling Stone’s reporting.
Late on Dec. 4, Jackie texted Erdely, and the writer called back. It was by now after midnight. “We proceeded to have a conversation that led me to have serious doubts,” Erdely said.
She telephoned her principal editor on the story, Sean Woods, and said she had now lost confidence in the accuracy of her published description of Jackie’s assault. Woods, who had been an editor at Rolling Stone since 2004, “was just stunned,” he said. He “raced into the office” to help decide what to do next. Later that day, the magazine published an editor’s note that effectively retracted Rolling Stone’s reporting on Jackie’s allegations of gang rape at the University of Virginia. “It was the worst day of my professional life,” Woods said.
Rolling Stone’s repudiation of the main narrative in “A Rape on Campus” is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking. 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 published story glossed over the gaps in the magazine’s reporting by using pseudonyms and by failing to state where important information had come from.
In late March, after a four-month investigation, the Charlottesville, Va., police department said that it had “exhausted all investigative leads” and had concluded, “There is no substantive basis to support the account alleged in the Rolling Stone article.” [Footnote 2]
The story’s blowup comes as another shock to journalism’s credibility amid head-swiveling change in the media industry. The particulars of Rolling Stone’s failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail.
As at other once-robust print magazines and newspapers, Rolling Stone’s editorial staff has shrunk in recent years as print advertising revenue has fallen and shifted online. The magazine’s full-time editorial ranks, not including art or photo staff, have contracted by about 25 percent since 2008. Yet Rolling Stone continues to invest in professional fact-checkers and to fund time-consuming investigations like Erdely’s. The magazine’s records and interviews with participants show that the failure of “A Rape on Campus” was not due to a lack of resources. The problem was methodology, compounded by an environment where several journalists with decades of collective experience failed to surface and debate problems about their reporting or to heed the questions they did receive from a fact-checking colleague.
Erdely and her editors had hoped their investigation would sound an alarm about campus sexual assault and would challenge Virginia and other universities to do better. Instead, the magazine’s failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations. (Social scientists analyzing crime records report that the rate of false rape allegations is 2 to 8 percent.) At the University of Virginia, “It’s going to be more difficult now to engage some people … because they have a preconceived notion that women lie about sexual assault,” said Alex Pinkleton, a UVA student and rape survivor who was one of Erdely’s sources.
There has been other collateral damage. “It’s completely tarnished our reputation,” said Stephen Scipione, the chapter president of Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity Jackie named as the site of her alleged assault. “It’s completely destroyed a semester of our lives, specifically mine. It’s put us in the worst position possible in our community here, in front of our peers and in the classroom.”
The university has also suffered. Rolling Stone’s account linked UVA’s fraternity culture to a horrendous crime and portrayed the administration as neglectful. Some UVA administrators whose actions in and around Jackie’s case were described in the story were depicted unflatteringly and, they say, falsely. Allen W. Groves, the University dean of students, and Nicole Eramo, an assistant dean of students, separately wrote to the authors of this report that the story’s account of their actions was inaccurate. [Footnote 3]
In retrospect, Dana, the managing editor, who has worked at Rolling Stone since 1996, said the story’s breakdown reflected both an “individual failure” and “procedural failure, an institutional failure. … Every single person at every level of this thing had opportunities to pull the strings a little harder, to question things a little more deeply, and that was not done.”
Yet the editors and Erdely have concluded that their main fault was to be too accommodating of Jackie because she described herself as the survivor of a terrible sexual assault. Social scientists, psychologists and trauma specialists who support rape survivors have impressed upon journalists the need to respect the autonomy of victims, to avoid re-traumatizing them and to understand that rape survivors are as reliable in their testimony as other crime victims. These insights clearly influenced Erdely, Woods and Dana. “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” Woods said. “We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”
Erdely added: “If this story was going to be about Jackie, I can’t think of many things that we would have been able to do differently. … Maybe the discussion should not have been so much about how to accommodate her but should have been about whether she would be in this story at all.” Erdely’s reporting led her to other, adjudicated cases of rape at the university that could have illustrated her narrative, although none was as shocking and dramatic as Jackie’s.
Yet the explanation that Rolling Stone failed because it deferred to a victim cannot adequately account for what went wrong. Erdely’s reporting records and interviews with participants make clear that the magazine did not pursue important reporting paths even when Jackie had made no request that they refrain. The editors made judgments about attribution, fact-checking and verification that greatly increased their risks of error but had little or nothing to do with protecting Jackie’s position.
It would be unfortunate if Rolling Stone’s failure were to deter journalists from taking on high-risk investigations of rape in which powerful individuals or institutions may wish to avoid scrutiny but where the facts may be underdeveloped. There is clearly a need for a more considered understanding and debate among journalists and others about the best practices for reporting on rape survivors, as well as on sexual assault allegations that have not been adjudicated. This report will suggest ways forward. It will also seek to clarify, however, why Rolling Stone’s failure with “A Rape on Campus” need not have happened, even accounting for the magazine’s sensitivity to Jackie’s position. That is mainly a story about reporting and editing.
‘How Else Do You Suggest I Find It Out?’
By the time Rolling Stone’s editors assigned an article on campus sexual assault to Erdely in the spring of 2014, high-profile rape cases at Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Vanderbilt and Florida State had been in the headlines for months. The Office of Civil Rights at the federal Department of Education was leaning on colleges to reassess and improve their policies. Across the country, college administrators had to adjust to stricter federal oversight as well as to a new generation of student activists, including women who declared openly that they had been raped at school and had not received justice.
There were numerous reports of campus assault that had been mishandled by universities. At Columbia, an aggrieved student dragged a mattress around campus to call attention to her account of assault and injustice. The facts in these cases were sometimes disputed, but they had generated a wave of campus activism. “My original idea,” Dana said, was “to look at one of these cases and have the story be more about the process of what happens when an assault is reported and the sort of issues it brings up.”
Jackie’s story seemed a powerful candidate for such a narrative. Yet once she heard the story, Erdely struggled to decide how much she could independently verify the details Jackie provided without jeopardizing Jackie’s cooperation. In the end, the reporter relied heavily on Jackie for help in getting access to corroborating evidence and interviews. Erdely asked Jackie for introductions to friends and family. She asked for text messages to confirm parts of Jackie’s account, for records from Jackie’s employment at the aquatic center and for health records. She even asked to examine the bloodstained red dress Jackie said she had worn on the night she said she was attacked.
Jackie gave the reporter some help. She provided emails from a pool supervisor as evidence of her employment there. She introduced Erdely to Rachel Soltis, a freshman-year suitemate. Soltis confirmed that in January 2013, four months after the alleged attack, Jackie had told her that she had been gang-raped.
Yet Jackie could also be hard to pin down. Other interviews Jackie said she would facilitate never materialized. “I felt frustrated, but I didn’t think she didn’t want to produce” corroboration, Erdely said. Eventually, Jackie told Erdely that her mother had thrown away the red dress. She also said that her mother would be willing to talk to Erdely, but the reporter said that when she called and left messages several times, the mother did not respond.
There were a number of ways that Erdely might have reported further, on her own, to verify what Jackie had told her. Jackie told the writer that one of her rapists had been part of a small discussion group in her anthropology class. Erdely might have tried to verify independently that there was such a group and to identify the young man Jackie described. She might have examined Phi Kappa Psi’s social media for members she could interview and for evidence of a party on the night Jackie described. Erdely might have looked for students who worked at the aquatic center and sought out clues about the lifeguard Jackie had described. Any one of these and other similar reporting paths might have led to discoveries that would have caused Rolling Stone to reconsider its plans. But three failures of reporting effort stand out. They involve basic, even routine journalistic practice – not special investigative effort. And if these reporting pathways had been followed, Rolling Stone very likely would have avoided trouble.
Three friends and a ‘shit show’
During their first interview, Jackie told Erdely that after she escaped the fraternity where seven men, egged on by her date, had raped her, she called three friends for help.
She described the two young men and one woman – now former friends, she told Erdely – as Ryan, Alex and Kathryn. She gave first names only, according to Erdely’s notes. She said they met her in the early hours of Sept. 29, 2012, on the campus grounds. Jackie said she was “crying and crying” at first and that all she could communicate was that “something bad” had happened. She said her friends understood that she had been sexually assaulted. (In interviews for this report, Ryan and Alex said that Jackie told them that she had been forced to perform oral sex on multiple men.) In Jackie’s account to Erdely, Ryan urged her to go to the university women’s center or a hospital for treatment. But Alex and Kathryn worried that if she reported a rape, their social lives would be affected. “She’s going to be the girl who cried ‘rape’ and we’ll never be allowed into any frat party again,” Jackie recalled Kathryn saying.
Jackie spoke of Ryan sympathetically, but the scene she painted for Rolling Stone’s writer was unflattering to all three former friends. Journalistic practice – and basic fairness – require that if a reporter intends to publish derogatory information about anyone, he or she should seek that person’s side of the story.
Erdely said that while visiting UVA, she did ask Alex Pinkleton, a student and assault survivor, for help in identifying or contacting the three. (Pinkleton was not the “Alex” to whom Jackie referred in her account.) But Pinkleton said she would need to ask Jackie for permission to assist the writer. Erdely did not follow up with her. It should have been possible for Erdely to identify the trio independently. Facebook friend listings might have shown the names. Or, Erdely could have asked other current students, besides Pinkleton, to help.
Instead, Erdely relied on Jackie. On July 29, she asked Jackie for help in speaking to Ryan, “about corroborating that night, just a second voice?” Jackie answered, according to the writer’s notes, that while “Ryan may be awkward, I don’t understand why he wouldn’t.” But Jackie did not respond to follow-up messages Erdely left.
On Sept. 11, Erdely traveled to Charlottesville and met Jackie in person for the first time, at a restaurant near the UVA campus. With her digital recorder running, the reporter again asked about speaking to Ryan. “I did talk to Ryan,” Jackie disclosed. She said she had bumped into him and had asked if he would be interested in talking to Rolling Stone. Jackie went on to quote Ryan’s incredulous reaction: “No! … I’m in a fraternity here, Jackie, I don’t want the Greek system to go down, and it seems like that’s what you want to happen. … I don’t want to be a part of whatever little shit show you’re running.”
“Ryan is obviously out,” Erdely told Jackie a little later.
Yet Jackie never requested – then or later – that Rolling Stone refrain from contacting Ryan, Kathryn or Alex independently. “I wouldn’t say it was an obligation” to Jackie, Erdely said later. She worried, instead, that if “I work round Jackie, am I going to drive her from the process?” Jackie could be hard to get hold of, which made Erdely worry that her cooperation remained tentative. Yet Jackie never said that she would withdraw if Erdely sought out Ryan or conducted other independent reporting.
“They were always on my list of people” to track down, Erdely said of the three. However, she grew busy reporting on UVA’s response to Jackie’s case, she said. She doesn’t remember having a distinct conversation about this issue with Woods, her editor. “We just kind of agreed. … We just gotta leave it alone.” Woods, however, recalled more than one conversation with Erdely about this. When Erdely said she had exhausted all the avenues for finding the friends, he said he agreed to let it go.
If Erdely had reached Ryan Duffin – his true name – he would have said that he had never told Jackie that he would not participate in Rolling Stone’s “shit show,” Duffin said in an interview for this report. The entire conversation with Ryan that Jackie described to Erdely “never happened,” he said. Jackie had never tried to contact him about cooperating with Rolling Stone. He hadn’t seen Jackie or communicated with her since the previous April, he said.
If Erdely had learned Ryan’s account that Jackie had fabricated their conversation, she would have changed course immediately, to research other UVA rape cases free of such contradictions, she said later.
If Erdely had called Kathryn Hendley and Alex Stock – their true names – to check their sides of Jackie’s account of Sept. 28 and 29, they would have denied saying any of the words Jackie attributed to them (as Ryan would have as well). They would have described for Erdely a history of communications with Jackie that would have left the reporter with many new questions. For example, the friends said that Jackie told them that her date on Sept. 28 was not a lifeguard but a student in her chemistry class named Haven Monahan. (The Charlottesville police said in March they could not identify a UVA student or any other person named Haven Monahan.) All three friends would have spoken to Erdely, they said, if they had been contacted.
The episode reaffirms a truism of reporting: Checking derogatory information with subjects is a matter of fairness, but it can also produce surprising new facts.
Throughout her reporting, Erdely told Jackie and others that she wanted to publish the name of the fraternity where Jackie said she had been raped. Erdely felt Jackie “was secure” about the name of the fraternity: Phi Kappa Psi.
Last October, as she was finishing her story, Erdely emailed Stephen Scipione, Phi Kappa Psi’s local chapter president. “I’ve become aware of allegations of gang rape that have been made against the UVA chapter of Phi Kappa Psi,” Erdely wrote. “Can you comment on those allegations?”
It was a decidedly truncated version of the facts that Erdely believed she had in hand. She did not reveal Jackie’s account of the date of the attack. She did not reveal that Jackie said Phi Kappa Psi had hosted a “date function” that night, that prospective pledges were present or that the man who allegedly orchestrated the attack was a Phi Kappa Psi member who was also a lifeguard at the university aquatic center. Jackie had made no request that she refrain from providing such details to the fraternity.
The university’s administration had recently informed Phi Kappa Psi that it had received an account of a sexual assault at the fraternity that had reportedly taken place in September 2012. Erdely knew that the fraternity had received a briefing from UVA but did not know its specific contents. In fact, in this briefing, Scipione said in a recent interview, UVA provided a mid-September date as the night of the assault – not Sept. 28. And the briefing did not contain the details that Jackie had provided Erdely. The university said only that according to the account it had received, a freshman woman had been drinking at a party, had gone upstairs and had been forced to have oral sex with multiple men.
On Oct. 15, Scipione replied to Erdely’s request for comment. He had learned, he wrote to her by email, “that an individual who remains unidentified had supposedly reported to someone who supposedly reported to the University that during a party there was a sexual assault.” He added, “Even though this allegation is fourth hand and there are no details and no named accuser, the leadership and fraternity as a whole have taken this very seriously.”
Erdely next telephoned Shawn Collinsworth, then Phi Kappa Psi’s national executive director. Collinsworth volunteered a summary of what UVA had passed on to the fraternity’s leaders: that there were allegations of “gang rape during Phi Psi parties” and that one assault “took place in September 2012.”
Erdely asked him, according to her notes, “Can you comment?”
If Erdely had provided Scipione and Collinsworth the full details she possessed instead of asking simply for “comment,” the fraternity might have investigated the facts she presented. After Rolling Stone published, Phi Kappa Psi said it did just that. Scipione said in an interview that a review of the fraternity’s social media archives and bank records showed that the fraternity had held no date function or other party on the night Jackie said she was raped. A comparison of fraternity membership rolls with aquatic center employment records showed that it had no members who worked as lifeguards, Scipione added.
Erdely said Scipione had seemed “really vague,” so she focused on getting a reply from Collinsworth. “I felt that I gave him a full opportunity to respond,” she said. “I felt very strongly that he already knew what the allegations were because they’d been told by UVA.” As it turned out, however, the version of the attack provided to Phi Kappa Psi was quite different from and less detailed than the one Jackie had provided to Erdely.
Scipione said that Rolling Stone did not provide the detailed information the fraternity required to respond properly to the allegations. “It was complete bullshit,” he said. “They weren’t telling me what they were going to write about. They weren’t telling me any dates or details.” Collinsworth said that he was also not provided the details of the attack that ultimately appeared in Rolling Stone.
There are cases where reporters may choose to withhold some details of what they plan to write while seeking verification for fear that the subject might “front run” by rushing out a favorably spun version pre-emptively. There are sophisticated journalistic subjects in politics and business that sometimes burn reporters in this way. Even so, it is risky for a journalist to withhold detailed derogatory information from any subject before publication. Here, there was no apparent need to fear “front-running” by Phi Kappa Psi.
Even if Rolling Stone did not trust Phi Kappa Psi’s motivations, if it had given the fraternity a chance to review the allegations in detail, the factual discrepancies the fraternity would likely have reported might have led Erdely and her editors to try to verify Jackie’s account more thoroughly.
The mystery of “Drew”
In her interviews, Jackie freely used a first name – but no last name – of the lifeguard she said had orchestrated her rape. On Sept. 16, for the first time, Erdely raised the possibility of tracking this man down.
“Any idea what he’s up to now?” Erdely asked, according to her notes.
“No, I just know he’s graduated. I’ve blocked him on Facebook,” Jackie replied. “One of my friends looked him up – she wanted to see him so she could recognize and kill him,” Jackie said, laughing. “I couldn’t even look at his Facebook page.”
“How would you feel if I reached out to him for a comment?” Erdely asked, the notes record.
“I’m not sure I would be comfortable with that.”
That exchange inaugurated a six-week struggle between Erdely and Jackie. For a while, it seemed to Erdely as if the stalemate might lead Jackie to withdraw from cooperation altogether.
On Oct. 20, Erdely asked again for the man’s last name. “I’m not going to use his name in the article, but I have to do my due diligence anyway,” Erdely told Jackie, according to the writer’s notes. “I imagine he’s going to say nothing, but it’s something I need to do.”
“I don’t want to give his last name,” Jackie replied. “I don’t even want to get him involved in this. … He completely terrifies me. I’ve never been so scared of a person in my entire life, and I’ve never wanted to tell anybody his last name. … I guess part of me was thinking that he’d never even know about the article.”
“Of course he’s going to know about the article,” Erdely said. “He’s going to read it. He probably knows about the article already.”
Jackie sounded shocked, according to Erdely’s notes. “I don’t want to be the one to give you the name,” Jackie said.
“How else do you suggest I find it out?”
“I guess you could ask Phi Psi for their list,” Jackie suggested.
After this conversation, Jackie stopped responding to Erdely’s calls and messages. “There was a point in which she disappeared for about two weeks,” Erdely said, “and we became very concerned” about Jackie’s well-being. “Her behavior seemed consistent with a victim of trauma.”
Yet Jackie made no demand that Rolling Stone not try to identify the lifeguard independently. She even suggested a way to do so – by checking the fraternity’s roster. Nor did she condition her participation in the story on Erdely agreeing not to try to identify the lifeguard.
Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting. We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.
Erdely did try to identify the man on her own. She asked Jackie’s friends if they could help. They demurred. She searched online to see if the clues she had would produce a full name. This turned up nothing definitive. “She was very aggressive about contacting” the lifeguard, said Pinkleton, one of the students Erdely asked for assistance.
With the benefit of hindsight, to succeed, Erdely probably would have had to persuade students to access the aquatic center’s employment records, to find possible name matches. That might have taken time and luck.
By October’s end, with the story scheduled for closing in just two weeks, Jackie was still refusing to answer Erdely’s texts and voicemails. Finally, on Nov. 3, after consulting with her editors, Erdely left a message for Jackie proposing to her a “solution” that would allow Rolling Stone to avoid contacting the lifeguard after all. The magazine would use a pseudonym; “Drew” was eventually chosen.
After Erdely left this capitulating voicemail, Jackie called back quickly. According to Erdely, she now chatted freely about the lifeguard, still without using his last name. From that point on, through the story’s publication, Jackie cooperated.
In December, Jackie told The Washington Post in an interview that after several interviews with Erdely, she had asked to be removed from the story, but that Erdely had refused. Jackie told the Post she later agreed to participate on condition that she be allowed to fact-check parts of her story. Erdely said in an interview for this report that she was completely surprised by Jackie’s statements to the Post and that Jackie never told her she wanted to withdraw from the story. There is no evidence of such an exchange between Jackie and Erdely in the materials Erdely submitted to Rolling Stone.
There was, in fact, an aquatic center lifeguard who had worked at the pool at the same time as Jackie and had the first name she had used freely with Erdely. He was not a member of Phi Kappa Psi, however. The police interviewed him and examined his personal records. They found no evidence to link him to Jackie’s assault.
If Rolling Stone had located him and heard his response to Jackie’s allegations, including the verifiable fact that he did not belong to Phi Kappa Psi, this might have led Erdely to reconsider her focus on that case. In any event, Rolling Stone stopped looking for him.
‘What Are They Hiding?’
“A Rape on Campus” had ambitions beyond recounting one woman’s assault. It was intended as an investigation of how colleges deal with sexual violence. The assignment was timely. The systems colleges have put in place to deal with sexual misconduct have come under intense scrutiny. These systems are works in progress, entangled in changing and sometimes contradictory federal rules that seek at once to keep students safe, hold perpetrators to account and protect every student’s privacy.
The legal issues date to 1977, when five female students sued Yale University, arguing that they had been sexually harassed. The students invoked Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law that bans gender discrimination in education. They lost their case, but their argument – that sexual harassment and violence on campus threatened women’s access to education – prevailed over time. By the mid-1980s, hundreds of colleges had adopted procedures to manage sexual misconduct, from stalking to rape. If universities failed to do so adequately, they could lose federal funding.
In late 2009, the Center for Public Integrity began to publish a series of articles that helped inspire even stricter federal guidelines. The articles bared problems with the first generation of campus response: botched investigations by untrained staff members; adjudication processes shrouded in secrecy; and sanctions so lacking that they sometimes allowed rapists, including repeat offenders, to remain on campus while their victims fled school.
The Obama administration took up the cause. It pressured colleges to adopt more rigorous systems, and it required a lower threshold of guilt to convict a student before school tribunals. The new pressure caused confusion, however, and, in some cases, charges of injustice. Last October, a group of Harvard Law School professors wrote that its university’s revised sexual misconduct policy was “jettisoning balance and fairness in the rush to appease certain federal administrative officials.”
Erdely’s choice of the University of Virginia as a case study was well timed. The week she visited campus, an 18-year-old UVA sophomore went missing and was later found to have been abducted and killed. The university had by then endured a number of highly visible sexual assault cases. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights had placed the school, along with 54 others, under a broad compliance review.
“The overarching point of the article,” Erdely wrote in response to questions from The Washington Post last December, was not Jackie, but “the culture that greeted her and so many other UVA women I interviewed, who came forward with allegations, only to be met with indifference.”
Erdely saw her reporting about UVA as an examination, she said in an interview for this report, of “the way colleges handle these types of things.” Jackie “was just the most dramatic example.”
‘A chilling effect’
After she heard Jackie’s shocking story, Erdely zeroed in on the obligation of universities under federal law to issue timely warnings when there is a “serious or continuing” threat to student safety. Erdely understood from Jackie that eight months after the alleged assault, she had reported to UVA about being gang-raped at the Phi Kappa Psi house on campus grounds, in what appeared to be a hazing ritual. The university, Rolling Stone reported in its published story, was remiss in not warning its students about this apparently predatory fraternity.
According to the Charlottesville police, Jackie did meet with assistant dean of students Nicole Eramo on May 20, 2013. During that meeting, Jackie described her assault differently than she did later for Erdely, the police said, declining to provide details. According to members of the UVA community knowledgeable about the case, who asked not to be identified in order to speak about confidential university matters, Jackie recounted to Eramo the same story she had told her friends on the night of Sept. 28: She was forced to have oral sex with several men while at a fraternity party. Jackie did not name the fraternity where the assault occurred or provide names or details about her attackers, the sources said. No mention was made of hazing. (Citing student privacy and ongoing investigations, the UVA administration, through its communications office, declined to answer questions about the case.)
Over the years, the Department of Education has issued guidelines that stress victim confidentiality and autonomy. This means survivors decide whether to report and what assistance they would like. “If she did not identify any individual or Greek organization by name, the university was very, very limited in what it can do,” said S. Daniel Carter, a campus safety advocate and director of the nonprofit 32 National Campus Safety Initiative.
As Rolling Stone reported, at their May 2013 meeting, Eramo presented Jackie her options: reporting the assault to the police or to the university’s Sexual Misconduct Board. The dean also offered counseling and other services. She checked with Jackie in succeeding weeks to see whether she wanted to take action. She introduced Jackie to One Less, a student group made up of sexual assault survivors and their advocates.
The university did not issue a warning at this point because Jackie did not file a formal complaint and her account did not include the names of assailants or a specific fraternity, according to the UVA sources. It also made no mention of hazing.
I guess maybe I was surprised that nobody said, ‘Why haven’t you called them?’ But nobody did, and I wasn’t going to press that issue.
Between that time and April 2014, the university received no further information about Jackie’s case, according to the police and UVA sources.
On April 21, 2014, Jackie again met with Eramo, according to the police. She told the dean that she was now coming under pressure for her visible activism on campus with assault prevention groups such as Take Back the Night, according to the UVA sources. Three weeks earlier, she said, she had been hit in the face by a bottle thrown by hecklers outside a Charlottesville bar. She also added a new piece of information to her earlier account of the gang rape she had endured. She named Phi Kappa Psi as the fraternity where the assault had taken place, the police said later. Moreover, she mentioned to Eramo two other students who she said had been raped at that fraternity. But she did not reveal the names of these women or any details about their assaults.
When there is credible information about multiple acts of sexual violence by the same perpetrator that may put students at risk, Department of Education guidelines indicate the university should take action even when no formal complaint has been filed. The school should also consider whether to issue a public safety warning. Once more, the University of Virginia did not issue a warning. Whether the administration should have done so, given the information it then possessed, is a question under review by the University of Virginia’s governing Board of Visitors, aided by fact-finding and analysis by the law firm O’Melveny & Myers. (On March 30, UVA updated its sexual assault policy to include more clearly defined procedures for assessing threats and issuing timely warnings.)
The day after her meeting with the dean, Jackie met with Charlottesville and UVA police in a meeting arranged by Eramo. Jackie reported both the bottle-throwing incident and her assault at the Phi Kappa Psi house. The police later said that she declined to provide details about the gang rape because “[s]he feared retaliation from the fraternity if she followed through with a criminal investigation.” The police also said they found significant discrepancies in Jackie’s account of the day she said she was struck by the bottle.
That summer, Erdely began interviewing multiple UVA assault survivors. University officials still hoped that Jackie and the two other victims she had mentioned would file formal charges, the UVA sources said. Erdely knew this: On July 14, Emily Renda, who had graduated in May and taken a job in the university’s student affairs office, told the reporter that it might be unwise for Rolling Stone to name Phi Kappa Psi in its story because “there are two other women who have not come forward fully yet, and we are trying to persuade them to get punitive action against the fraternity.” Renda wrote later in an email for this report that she had tried to dissuade the writer “because of due process concerns and the way in which publicly accusing a fraternity might both prevent any future justice, but also infringe on their rights.” Renda’s warning to Erdely – a notice from a UVA employee that Phi Kappa Psi was under university scrutiny over allegations made by Jackie and two others – added to the impression that UVA regarded Jackie’s narrative as reliable.
As it turned out, however, all of the information that the reporter, Renda and UVA possessed about the two other reported victims, in addition to Jackie, came only from Jackie. One of the women filed an anonymous report through the UVA online system – Jackie told Erdely she was there when the student pressed the “send” button – but neither of the women has been heard from since.
‘I’m afraid it may look like
we’re trying to hide something’
In early September, Erdely asked to interview Eramo. The request created a dilemma for UVA. Universities must comply with a scaffold of federal laws that limit what they can make public about their students. The most important of these is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, which protects student privacy and can make it difficult for university staff members to release records or answer questions about any enrollee.
Eramo was willing to talk if she wasn’t asked about specific cases, but about hypothetical situations, as Erdely had cleverly suggested as a way around student privacy limitations.
“Since [Erdely] was referred to me by the students she interviewed, I’m afraid it may look like we are trying to hide something for me not to speak with her,” Eramo said in an email to the UVA communications staff, recently released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
The communications office endorsed the interview, but Vice President for Student Life Patricia Lampkin vetoed the idea. “This is not reflective of Nicole,” she wrote in an email, “but of the issue and how reporters turn the issue.” Asked to clarify that statement for this review, Lampkin said she felt that given FERPA restrictions, there was nothing Eramo could say in an interview that would give Erdely “a full and balanced view of the situation.”
The distrust was mutual. “I had actually gone to campus thinking that they were going to be very helpful,” Erdely said. Now she felt she was being stonewalled. Among other things, she said Jackie and Alex Pinkleton told her that after Rolling Stone started asking questions on campus, UVA administrators contacted Phi Kappa Psi for the first time about the allegations of sexual assault at the fraternity house.
To Erdely, UVA looked as if it was in damage control mode. “So I think that instead of being skeptical of Jackie,” she said, “I became skeptical of UVA. … What are they hiding and why are they acting this way?”
It is true that UVA did not get in touch with Phi Kappa Psi until Erdely showed up on campus. University sources offered an explanation. They said that administrators had contemplated suspending the fraternity’s charter, but that would mean no university oversight over Phi Kappa Psi. They had also put off contacting the fraternity in the summer in the hope that Jackie and the other alleged victims would file charges. That hadn’t happened, so they decided to act, even before Erdely started asking questions, these sources said. (At the time of the writing of this report, the university had released no documentary evidence to support the decision-making sequence these sources described.) In any event, there was reason for Rolling Stone to be skeptical. UVA’s history of managing sexual misconduct is checkered, as Erdely illustrated in other cases she reported on.
On Oct. 2, Erdely interviewed UVA President Teresa Sullivan. The reporter asked probing questions that revealed the gap between the number of assault cases that the university reported publicly and the cases that had been brought to the university’s attention internally. Erdely described the light sanctions imposed on students found guilty of sexual misconduct. She asked about allegations of gang rapes at Phi Kappa Psi. Sullivan said that a fraternity was under investigation but declined to comment further about specific cases.
Following the recent announcement by the Charlottesville police that they could find no basis for Rolling Stone’s account of Jackie’s assault, Sullivan issued a statement. “The investigation confirms what federal privacy law prohibited the university from sharing last fall: That the university provided support and care to a student in need, including assistance in reporting potential criminal conduct to law enforcement,” she said.
Erdely concluded that UVA had not done enough. “Having presumably judged there to be no threat,” she wrote in her published story, UVA “took no action to warn the campus that an allegation of gang rape had been made against an active fraternity.” Overall, she wrote, “rapes are kept quiet” at UVA in part because of “an administration that critics say is less concerned with protecting students than it is with protecting its own reputation from scandal.”
During the six months she worked on the story, Erdely concentrated her reporting on the perspectives of victims of sexual violence at the University of Virginia and other campuses. She was moved by their experiences and their diverse frustrations. Her access to the perspectives of UVA administrators was much more limited, in part because some of them were not permitted to speak with her but also because Erdely came to see them as obstacles to her reporting.
In the view of some of Erdely’s sources, the portrait she created was unfair and mistaken. “The university’s response is not, ‘We don’t care,’” said Pinkleton, Jackie’s confidante and a member of One Less. “When I reported my own assault, they immediately started giving me resources.”
For her part, Eramo rejects the article’s suggestion that UVA places its own reputation above protecting students. In an email provided by her lawyers, the dean wrote that the article falsely attributes to her statements she never made (to Jackie or otherwise) and that it “trivializes the complexities of providing trauma-informed support to survivors and the real difficulties inherent in balancing respect for the wishes of survivors while also providing for the safety of our communities.”
“UVA does have plenty of room to grow in regard to prevention and response, as most if not all, colleges do,” said Sara Surface, a junior who co-chairs UVA’s Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition. She added, “The administrators and staff that work directly with and advocate for survivors are not more interested in the college’s reputation over the well-being of its students.”
The Editing: ‘I Wish Somebody Had Pushed Me Harder’
Sean Woods, Erdely’s primary editor, might have prevented the effective retraction of Jackie’s account by pressing his writer to close the gaps in her reporting. He started his career in music journalism but had been editing complex reported features at Rolling Stone for years. Investigative reporters working on difficult, emotive or contentious stories often have blind spots. It is up to their editors to insist on more phone calls, more travel, more time, until the reporting is complete. Woods did not do enough.
Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner said he typically reads about half of the stories in each issue before publication. He read a draft of Erdely’s narrative and found Jackie’s case “extremely strong, powerful, provocative. … I thought we had something really good there.” But Wenner leaves the detailed editorial supervision to managing editor Will Dana, who has been at the magazine for almost two decades. Dana might have looked more deeply into the story drafts he read, spotted the reporting gaps and insisted that they be fixed. He did not. “It’s on me,” Dana said. “I’m responsible.”
In hindsight, the most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was to accept that Erdely had not contacted the three friends who spoke with Jackie on the night she said she was raped. That was the reporting path, if taken, that would have almost certainly led the magazine’s editors to change plans.
Erdely said that as she was preparing to write her first draft, she talked with Woods about the three friends. “Sean advised me that for now we should just put this aside,” she said. “He actually suggested that I change their names for now.” Woods said that he intended this decision to be temporary, pending further reporting and review.
Erdely used pseudonyms in her first draft: “Randall,” “Cindy” and “Andrew.” She relied solely on Jackie’s information and wrote vividly about how the three friends had reacted after finding Jackie shaken and weeping in the first hours of Sept. 29:
The group looked at each other in a panic. They all knew about Jackie’s date that evening at Phi Kappa Psi, the house looming behind them. “We have got to get her to the hospital,” Randall declared. The other two friends, however, weren’t convinced.
“Is that such a good idea?” countered Cindy. … “Her reputation will be shot for the next four years.” Andrew seconded the opinion. … The three friends launched into a heated discussion about the social price of reporting Jackie’s rape, while Jackie stood behind them, mute in her bloody dress.
Erdely inserted a note in her draft, in bold type: “she says – all her POV” – to indicate to her editors that the dialogue had come only from Jackie.
“In retrospect, I wish somebody had pushed me harder” about reaching out to the three for their versions, Erdely said. “I guess maybe I was surprised that nobody said, ‘Why haven’t you called them?’ But nobody did, and I wasn’t going to press that issue.” Of course, just because an editor does not ask a reporter to check derogatory information with a subject, that does not absolve the reporter of responsibility.
Woods remembered the sequence differently. After he read the first draft, he said, “I asked Sabrina to go reach” the three friends. “She said she couldn’t. … I did repeatedly ask, ‘Can we reach these people? Can we?’ And I was told no.” He accepted this because “I felt we had enough.” The documentary evidence provided by Rolling Stone sheds no light on whose recollection — Erdely’s or Wood’s – is correct.
Woods said he ultimately approved pseudonyms because he didn’t want to embarrass the three students by having Jackie’s account of their self-involved patter out there for all their friends and classmates to see. “I wanted to protect them,” he said.
For his part, Dana said he did not recall talking with Woods or Erdely about the three friends at all.
‘We need to verify this’
None of the editors discussed with Erdely whether Phi Kappa Psi or UVA, while being asked for “comment,” had been given enough detail about Jackie’s narrative to point out holes or contradictions. Erdely never raised the subject with her editors.
As to “Drew,” the lifeguard, Dana said he was not even aware that Rolling Stone did not know the man’s full name and had not confirmed his existence. Nor was he told that “we’d made any kind of agreement with Jackie to not try to track this person down.”
As noted, there was no such explicit compact between Erdely and Jackie, according to Erdely’s records. Jackie requested Erdely not to contact the lifeguard, but there was no agreement.
“Can you call the pool? Can you call the frat? Can you look at yearbooks?” Woods recalled asking Erdely after he read the first draft. “If you’ve got to go around Jackie, fine, but we need to verify this,” meaning Drew’s identity. He remembered having this discussion “at least three times.”
But when Jackie became unresponsive to Erdely in late October, Woods and Dana gave in. They authorized Erdely to tell Jackie they would stop trying to find the lifeguard. Woods resolved the issue as he had done earlier with the three friends: by using a pseudonym in the story.
‘I had a faith’
It is not possible in journalism to reach every source a reporter or editor might wish. A solution is to be transparent with readers about what is known or unknown at the time of publication.
There is a tension in magazine and narrative editing between crafting a readable story – a story that flows – and providing clear attribution of quotations and facts. It can be clunky and disruptive to write “she said” over and over. There should be room in magazine journalism for diverse narrative voicing – if the underlying reporting is solid. But the most egregious failures of transparency in “A Rape on Campus” cannot be chalked up to writing style. They obfuscated important problems with the story’s reporting.
- Rolling Stone’s editors did not make clear to readers that Erdely and her editors did not know “Drew’s” true name, had not talked to him and had been unable to verify that he existed. That was fundamental to readers’ understanding. In one draft of the story, Erdely did include a disclosure. She wrote that Jackie “refuses to divulge [Drew’s] full name to RS,” because she is “gripped by fears she can barely articulate.” Woods cut that passage as he was editing. He “debated adding it back in” but “ultimately chose not to.”
- Woods allowed the “shit show” quote from “Randall” into the story without making it clear that Erdely had not gotten it from him but from Jackie. “I made that call,” Woods said. Not only did this mislead readers about the quote’s origins, it also compounded the false impression that Rolling Stone knew who “Randall” was and had sought his and the other friends’ side of the story.
The editors invested Rolling Stone’s reputation in a single source. “Sabrina’s a writer I’ve worked with for so long, have so much faith in, that I really trusted her judgment in finding Jackie credible,” Woods said. “I asked her a lot about that, and she always said she found her completely credible.”
Woods and Erdely knew Jackie had spoken about her assault with other activists on campus, with at least one suitemate and to UVA. They could not imagine that Jackie would invent such a story. Woods said he and Erdely “both came to the decision that this person was telling the truth.” They saw her as a “whistle blower” who was fighting indifference and inertia at the university.
The problem of confirmation bias – the tendency of people to be trapped by pre-existing assumptions and to select facts that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones – is a well-established finding of social science. It seems to have been a factor here. Erdely believed the university was obstructing justice. She felt she had been blocked. Like many other universities, UVA had a flawed record of managing sexual assault cases. Jackie’s experience seemed to confirm this larger pattern. Her story seemed well established on campus, repeated and accepted.
“If I had been informed ahead of time of one problem or discrepancy with her overall story, we would have acted upon that very aggressively,” Dana said. “There were plenty of other stories we could have told in this piece.” If anyone had raised doubts about how verifiable Jackie’s narrative was, her case could have been summarized “in a paragraph deep in the story.”
No such doubts came to his attention, he said. As to the apparent gaps in reporting, attribution and verification that had accumulated in the story’s drafts, Dana said, “I had a faith that as it went through the fact-checking that all this was going to be straightened out.”
Fact-Checking: ‘Above My Pay Grade’
At Rolling Stone, every story is assigned to a fact-checker. At newspapers, wire services and in broadcast newsrooms, there is no job description quite like that of a magazine fact-checker. At newspapers, frontline reporters and editors are responsible for stories’ accuracy and completeness. Magazine fact-checking departments typically employ younger reporters or college graduates. Their job is to review a writer’s story after it has been drafted, to double-check details like dates and physical descriptions. They also look at issues such as attribution and whether story subjects who have been depicted unfavorably have had their say. Typically, checkers will speak with the writer’s sources, sometimes including confidential sources, to verify facts within quotations and other details. To be effective, checkers must be empowered to challenge the decisions of writers and editors who may be much more senior and experienced.
In this case, the fact-checker assigned to “A Rape on Campus” had been checking stories as a freelancer for about three years, and had been on staff for one and a half years. She relied heavily on Jackie, as Erdely had done. She said she was “also aware of the fact that UVA believed this story to be true.” That was a misunderstanding. What Rolling Stone knew at the time of publication was that Jackie had given a version of her account to UVA and other student activists. A university employee, Renda, had made reference to that account in congressional testimony. UVA had placed Phi Kappa Psi under scrutiny. None of this meant that the university had reached a conclusion about Jackie’s narrative. The checker did not provide the school with the details of Jackie’s account to Erdely of her assault at Phi Kappa Psi.
The editors invested Rolling Stone’s reputation in a single source.
The checker did try to improve the story’s reporting and attribution of quotations concerning the three friends. She marked on a draft that Ryan – “Randall” under pseudonym – had not been interviewed, and that his “shit show” quote had originated with Jackie. “Put this on Jackie?” the checker wrote. “Any way we can confirm with him?” She said she talked about this problem of clarity with Woods and Erdely. “I pushed. … They came to the conclusion that they were comfortable” with not making it clear to readers that they had never contacted Ryan.
She did not raise her concerns with her boss, Coco McPherson, who heads the checking department. “I have instructed members of my staff to come to me when they have problems or are concerned or feel that they need some muscle,” McPherson said. “That did not happen.” Asked if there was anything she should have been notified about, McPherson answered: “The obvious answers are the three friends. These decisions not to reach out to these people were made by editors above my pay grade.”
McPherson read the final draft. This was a provocative, complex story heavily reliant on a single source. She said later that she had faith in everyone involved and didn’t see the need to raise any issues with the editors. She was the department head ultimately responsible for fact-checking.
Natalie Krodel, an in-house lawyer for Wenner Media, conducted a legal review of the story before publication. Krodel had been on staff for several years and typically handled about half of Rolling Stone’s pre-publication reviews, sharing the work with general counsel Dana Rosen. [Footnote 4] It is not clear what questions the lawyer may have raised about the draft. Erdely and the editors involved declined to answer questions about the specifics of the legal review, citing instructions from the magazine’s outside counsel, Elizabeth McNamara, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine. McNamara said Rolling Stone would not answer questions about the legal review of “A Rape on Campus” in order to protect attorney-client privilege.
The Editor’s Note: ‘I Was Pretty Freaked Out’
On Dec. 5, following Erdely’s early-morning declaration that she had lost confidence in her sourcing, Rolling Stone posted an editor’s note on its website that effectively withdrew the magazine’s reporting on Jackie’s case.
The note was composed and published hastily. The editors had heard that The Washington Post intended to publish a story that same day calling the magazine’s reporting into question. They had also heard that Phi Kappa Psi would release a statement disputing some of Rolling Stone’s account. Dana said there was no time to conduct a “forensic investigation” into the story’s issues. He wrote the editor’s note “very quickly” and “under a lot of pressure.”
He posted it at about noon, under his signature. “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced,” it read. That language deflected blame from the magazine to its subject and it attracted yet more criticism. Dana said he rued his initial wording. “I was pretty freaked out,” he said. “I regretted using that phrase pretty quickly.” Early that evening, he changed course in a series of tweets. “That failure is on us – not on her,” he wrote. A revised editor’s note, using similar language, appeared the next day.
Yet the final version still strained to defend Rolling Stone’s performance. It said that Jackie’s friends and student activists at UVA “strongly supported her account.” That implied that these friends had direct knowledge of the reported rape. In fact, the students supported Jackie as a survivor, friend and fellow campus reformer. They had heard her story, but they could not independently confirm it.
For Rolling Stone: An Exceptional Lapse or a Failure of Policy?
The collapse of “A Rape on Campus” does not involve the kinds of fabrication by reporters that have occurred in some other infamous cases of journalistic meltdown. In 2003, The New York Times reporter Jayson Blair resigned after editors concluded that he had invented stories from whole cloth. In February, NBC News suspended anchor Brian Williams after he admitted that he told tall tales about his wartime reporting in Iraq. There is no evidence in Erdely’s materials or from interviews with her subjects that she invented facts; the problem was that she relied on what Jackie told her without vetting its accuracy.
“It’s been an extraordinarily painful and humbling experience,” Woods said. “I’ve learned that even the most trusted and experienced people – including, and maybe especially, myself – can make grave errors in judgment.”
Yet Rolling Stone’s senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems. “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. “We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.” Coco McPherson, the fact-checking chief, said, “I one hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter.”
Yet better and clearer policies about reporting practices, pseudonyms and attribution might well have prevented the magazine’s errors. The checking department should have been more assertive about questioning editorial decisions that the story’s checker justifiably doubted. Dana said he was not told of reporting holes like the failure to contact the three friends or the decision to use misleading attributions to obscure that fact.
Stronger policy and clearer staff understanding in at least three areas might have changed the final outcome:
Pseudonyms. Dana, Woods and McPherson said using pseudonyms at Rolling Stone is a “case by case” issue that requires no special convening or review. Pseudonyms are inherently undesirable in journalism. They introduce fiction and ask readers to trust that this is the only instance in which a publication is inventing details at its discretion. Their use in this case was a crutch – it allowed the magazine to evade coming to terms with reporting gaps. Rolling Stone should consider banning them. If its editors believe pseudonyms are an indispensable tool for its forms of narrative writing, the magazine should consider using them much more rarely and only after robust discussion about alternatives, with dissent encouraged.
Checking Derogatory Information. Erdely and Woods made the fateful agreement not to check with the three friends. If the fact-checking department had understood that such a practice was unacceptable, the outcome would almost certainly have changed.
Confronting Subjects With Details. When Erdely sought “comment,” she missed the opportunity to hear challenging, detailed rebuttals from Phi Kappa Psi before publication. The fact-checker relied only on Erdely’s communications with the fraternity and did not independently confirm with Phi Kappa Psi the account Rolling Stone intended to publish about Jackie’s assault. If both the reporter and checker had understood that by policy they should routinely share specific, derogatory details with the subjects of their reporting, Rolling Stone might have veered in a different direction.
For Journalists: Reporting on Campus Rape
Rolling Stone is not the first news organization to be sharply criticized for its reporting on rape. Of all crimes, rape is perhaps the toughest to cover. The common difficulties that reporters confront – including scarce evidence and conflicting accounts – can be magnified in a college setting. Reporting on a case that has not been investigated and adjudicated, as Rolling Stone did, can be even more challenging.
There are several areas that require care and should be the subject of continuing deliberation among journalists:
Balancing sensitivity to victims and the demands of verification. Over the years, trauma counselors and survivor support groups have helped journalists understand the shame attached to rape and the powerlessness and self-blame that can overwhelm victims, particularly young ones. Because questioning a victim’s account can be traumatic, counselors have cautioned journalists to allow survivors some control over their own stories. This is good advice. Yet it does survivors no good if reporters documenting their cases avoid rigorous practices of verification. That may only subject the victim to greater scrutiny and skepticism.
Problems arise when the terms of the compact between survivor and journalist are not spelled out. Kristen Lombardi, who spent a year and a half reporting the Center for Public Integrity’s series on campus sexual assault, said she made it explicit to the women she interviewed that the reporting process required her to obtain documents, collect evidence and talk to as many people involved in the case as possible, including the accused. She prefaced her interviews by assuring the women that she believed in them but that it was in their best interest to make sure there were no questions about the veracity of their accounts. She also allowed victims some control, including determining the time, place and pace of their interviews.
If a woman was not ready for such a process, Lombardi said, she was prepared to walk away.
Corroborating survivor accounts. Walt Bogdanich, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for The New York Times who has spent the past two years reporting on campus rape, said he tries to track down every available shred of corroborating evidence – hospital records, 911 calls, text messages or emails that have been sent immediately after the assault. In some cases, it can be possible to obtain video, either from security cameras or from cellphones.
Many assaults take place or begin in semipublic places such as bars, parties or fraternity houses. “Campus sexual violence probably has more witnesses, bystanders, etc. than violence in other contexts,” said Elana Newman, a University of Tulsa psychology professor who has advised journalists on trauma. “It might be useful for journalists to think about all the early signals and signs” and people who saw or ignored them early on, she said.
Every rape case has multiple narratives, Newman said. “If there are inconsistencies, explain those inconsistencies.” Reporters should also bear in mind that trauma can impair a victim’s memory and that this can be a cause of fragmentary and contradictory accounts.
Victims often interact with administrators, counselors and residence hall staff members. “I’ve always found that the people most willing to talk are these front-line staff,” said Lombardi, who said she phoned or visited potential sources at home and talked to them on background because of their concerns about student privacy.
FERPA restrictions are severe, yet the law allows students to access their own school records. Students at public universities can also sign privacy waivers that would allow reporters to obtain their records, including case files and reports.
Moreover, there’s a FERPA exception: In sexual assault cases that have reached final disposition and a student has been found responsible, campus authorities can release the name of the student, the violation committed and any sanction imposed. (The Student Press Law Center provides good advice on navigating FERPA.)
Holding institutions to account. Given the difficulties, journalists are rarely in a position to prove guilt or innocence in rape. “The real value of what we do as journalists is analyzing the response of the institutions to the accusation,” Bogdanich said. This approach can also make it easier to persuade both victims and perpetrators to talk. Lombardi said the women she interviewed were willing to help because the story was about how the system worked or didn’t work. The accused, on the other hand, was often open to talking about perceived failings of the adjudication process.
To succeed at such reporting, it is necessary to gain a deep understanding of the tangle of rules and guidelines on campus sexual assault. There’s Title IX, the Clery Act and the Violence Against Women Act. There are directives from the Office of Civil Rights and recommendations from the White House. Congress and state legislatures are proposing new laws.
The responsibilities that universities have in preventing campus sexual assault – and the standards of performance they should be held to – are important matters of public interest. Rolling Stone was right to take them on. The pattern of its failure draws a map of how to do better.
1. Rolling Stone provided a 405-page record of Erdely’s interviews and research notes as well as access to original audio recordings. Erdely turned this record over to Rolling Stone before she or the magazine believed there were any problems with the story. Erdely said she typed notes contemporaneously on a laptop during phone and in-person interviews. In some cases, she taped interviews and meetings and transcribed them later. We compared transcripts Erdely submitted of her recorded interviews with Jackie with the audio files and found the transcripts to be accurate. Erdely’s typed notes of interviews contain her own questions or remarks, sometimes placed in brackets, as well as those of her interview subject. Erdely said that she sometimes typed her own questions or remarks contemporaneously but that other times she typed them after the interview was over, summarizing the questions she had asked or the comments she had made.
2. Rolling Stone’s retraction of its reporting about Jackie concerned the story it printed. The retraction cannot be understood as evidence about what actually happened to Jackie on the night of Sept. 28, 2012. If Jackie was attacked and, if so, by whom, cannot be established definitively from the evidence available.
Jackie’s phone records from September 2012 would provide strong evidence about what might have befallen her. But the Charlottesville police said the company they asked to produce Jackie’s phone records no longer had her records from 2012. After interviewing about 70 people and obtaining access to some university and fraternity records, the Charlottesville police could say only that they found no evidence of the gang rape Rolling Stone described. This finding, said Police Chief Timothy Longo, “doesn’t mean that something terrible didn’t happen to Jackie” that night.
3. In a letter, Groves objected to Rolling Stone’s portrayal of his actions during a University of Virginia Board of Visitors meeting last September. A video of the meeting is available on a UVA website. Groves wrote that Erdely “did not disclose the significant details that I had offered into the scope” of a Department of Education compliance review of UVA. Groves’s full letter is here.
In the email sent through her lawyer, Eramo wrote, Rolling Stone “made numerous false statements and misleading implications about the manner in which I conducted my job as the Chair of University of Virginia’s Sexual Misconduct Board, including allegations about specific student cases. Although the law prohibits me from commenting on those specific cases in order to protect the privacy of the students who I counsel, I can say that the account of my actions in Rolling Stone is false and misleading. The article trivializes the complexities of providing trauma-informed support to survivors and the real difficulties inherent in balancing respect for the wishes of survivors while also providing for the safety of our communities. As a general matter, I do not — and have never — allowed the possibility of a media story to influence the way I have counseled students or the decisions I have made in my position. And contrary to the quote attributed to me in Rolling Stone, I have never called the University of Virginia “the rape school,” nor have I ever suggested — either professionally or privately — that parents would not “want to send their daughter” to UVA. As a UVA alumna, and as someone who has lived in the Charlottesville community for over 20 years, I have a deep and profound love for this University and the students who study here.”
4. Last December, Rosen left Wenner Media for ALM Media, where she is general counsel. Rosen said her departure had no connection with “A Rape on Campus” and that she had played no part in reviewing the story before publication. She said she began talking with ALM in September, before Erdely’s story was filed, about the position she ultimately accepted.