By failing to make basic efforts to check the facts of its attention-grabbing story about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house, Rolling Stone has done a tremendous disservice to rape victims.
Now, when victims tell their stories, and when journalists or advocates report on those stories or share them publicly in any way, those inclined to disbelief will have a prominent example of a shocking, horrific story that was reported as if true, and that was initially defended by its reporter and editor even when significant questions were raised about the strength of the reporting.
Reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely's piece, "A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA," opens with a detailed, ugly account of the alleged gang rape of a young women named Jackie at a date function at UVA's Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house in the fall of 2012. In the story, Jackie is lured into a dark room by her date, then pushed to the ground, through a glass table, and raped for hours by multiple men, including one who uses a glass bottle. The story is told without any journalistic distance. It's presented not as what allegedly happened, but what did.
Since the story was published, the magazine repeatedly offered assurances that the story had been thoroughly reported and verified before publication. "Through our extensive reporting and fact-checking, we found Jackie to be entirely credible and courageous and we are proud to have given her disturbing story the attention it deserves," a statement sent to The Washington Post declared earlier this week. In response to a separate set of questions from another reporter at the Post, Erdely insisted that she found the story credible. "I think I did my due diligence in reporting this story; RS's excellent editors, fact-checkers, and lawyers all agreed," she said in an email. Story editor Sean Woods also vouched for the story.
What the follow-up investigation published by The Washington Post this afternoon makes clear is that very basic steps to corroborate details surrounding the central event in the story—the alleged gang rape of a young student named Jackie—were not taken at all. And in the course of defending the story against critics, Erdely and Woods were cagey and arguably misrepresented what they actually knew and had confirmed about the story's most prominent event.
Erdely, for example, told Slate that she had attempted to contact the accused. On a podcast with several of Slate's editorial staffers, she was asked, "Did you try and call them? Was there any communication between you and them?" She responded, "Yeah, I reached out to them in multiple ways," and then said "they were kind of hard to get in touch with because their contact page was pretty outdated." Erdely was asked multiple questions about whether she contacted "the boys" and "the actual boys" involved, but responded only that she ended up speaking to two national figures involved in the fraternity.
It's now clear that Erdely did not reach out to the individuals accused of perpetrating the attack. She agreed not to as part of a deal with Jackie. According to Rolling Stone's own statement today, "We decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her."
Indeed, it appears that not only did Erdely not contact the accused, she did not know the full name of the alleged primary assailant. "Earlier this week," today's follow-up in the Post says, "Jackie revealed to friends for the first time the full name of her alleged attacker, a name she had never disclosed to anyone." Emphasis on never and anyone. Unless the Post's follow-up report is mistaken, then that includes Erdely and the fact-checkers at Rolling Stone.
Yet that is not what Woods, the editor on Erdely's story, said earlier this week. "We verified their existence," he said to the Post, indicating that the magazine had checked with Jackie's friends. "I'm satisfied that these guys exist and are real. We knew who they were." If Jackie had truly never revealed the name of the attacker to anyone, then what Woods said cannot have been true.
In fact, according to the Post, the individual Jackie named this week isn't even a member of Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity at the center of the story. The Post appears to have been unable to definitively identify an individual who matches every one of the details Jackie gave in the story.
Erdely also apparently failed to corroborate other basic details from Jackie's story. Her Rolling Stone report says that the rape happened during fraternity rush, at a date event on September 28, 2012, and that the assailant who lured her into the room where she was raped worked as a lifeguard with Jackie on campus. Erdely did check that Jackie was a lifeguard. But no corroboration was provided for the other details, and an official statement from the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity this afternoon disputes all of them: There was no social function of any kind the weekend of September 28, 2012, rush—the frat's pledging period—takes place in the spring rather than the fall, and no Phi Kappa Psi member appears on the aquatic centers employee roster for 2012, the statement says.
These details cannot have been impossible to check; in the space of about a week, The Washington Post managed to investigate many of them. We don't have a complete accounting of Erdely's reporting methods, but what seems likely is that Erdely's confirmations of Jackie's story came entirely from people who had heard Jackie tell the same story that she told to Erdely; essentially, the entire account originated from a single source.
But even Jackie's friends in the sexual assault awareness advocacy community at UVA, people who have no interest in her story being untrue, have now "come to doubt her account," according to the Post's follow-up today. They believe that something traumatic happened to Jackie, but they too have tried to check her story, and found inconsistencies and details that cannot be proven or verified.
Advocates for rape victims and sexual assault awareness understandably tend to prioritize support, communication, and community building; they do not have a great responsibility to doubt, to verify, and to rigorously check all the minute details of the accounts they hear or share. But journalists do. To be sure, this sort of checking is almost always difficult, time-consuming, and stressful. Inevitably, some mistakes will be made (I've certainly made a few regretful errors of my own). There are tradeoffs between time and accuracy. But the more sensational the story, the more shocking and potentially consequential its allegations, the more that effort is necessary—especially with a long-form account that is not under the pressures and deadlines of daily journalism, and especially when the subject and major source of the story tries to back out, as Jackie apparently did.
The Post's damning follow-up story today makes it clear that, despite its claims to diligence, Erdely and Rolling Stone simply didn't make much effort at all. And by failing so thoroughly to corroborate so many essential details of Jackie's account—and by insisting, even after reasonable questions were raised, that the story had been verified to be true, they have made life much harder for the same victims of assault and advocates of awareness that a story like this ought to help.