CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBSDC/AP) — Rolling Stone magazine’s expose of what it called a culture of sex assaults at the University of Virginia was rife with bad journalistic practice, and “Jackie,” the student at the center of the story, is not to blame for the magazine’s failures, Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll said Monday.
“We do disagree with any suggestion that this was Jackie’s fault,” Coll said at a news conference in New York.
Rolling Stone pledged to review its editorial practices but won’t fire anyone after the leading journalism school issued a blistering critique of how it reported and edited a discredited article about an alleged gang rape at the university.
Coll said the problem of sex assaults on campus is important to the public and that journalists should strive to hold institutions accountable. But Rolling Stone failed to apply basic standards such as attributing facts to their sources, and he hopes the entire saga will serve to train future journalists.
Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity at the center of the article, said it plans “to pursue all available legal action against the magazine.”
“The report by Columbia University’s School of Journalism demonstrates the reckless nature in which Rolling Stone researched and failed to verify facts in its article that erroneously accused Phi Kappa Psi of crimes its members did not commit,” said Stephen Scipione, president of the school’s chapter of Phi Kappa Psi.
The journalism school’s analysis was accompanied by a statement from Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana apologizing for the failures and retracting the November 2014 story. Some University of Virginia students said none of that will erase the article’s repercussions.
“I think the real casualty of the report is the University of Virginia’s trust in journalism,” said Abraham Axler of New York City, president of the university’s Student Council. “I don’t think any University of Virginia student going through this will ever read an article the same way.”
Maggie Rossberg, a second-year nursing student from Crozet, Virginia, said her chief concern is the effect the journalistic lapses will have on rape victims. “This is probably going to discourage other sexual assault survivors from coming forward,” Rossberg said.
The Columbia review was undertaken at Rolling Stone’s request. It presented a broad indictment of the magazine’s handling of a story that had horrified readers, unleashed protests at the university’s Charlottesville campus and sparked a national discussion about sexual assaults on college campuses.
It came two weeks after the Charlottesville police department said it had found no evidence to back the claims of the alleged victim, who said she was raped by seven men at a social function at the fraternity house two years earlier.
Rolling Stone had asked for the independent review after numerous news media outlets found flaws with the story. The article quoted Jackie as saying that the attack was orchestrated by a fraternity member who worked with her at the school’s aquatic center.
She also said she immediately told three friends about the attack, but she said they were generally unsupportive, and that at least two encouraged her to keep quiet to protect their social standing.
The article’s author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, also apologized, saying she would not repeat the mistakes she made when writing the article, “A Rape on Campus.”
The magazine’s publisher, Jann S. Wenner, told The New York Times that Erdely would continue to write for the magazine and that neither her editor nor Dana would be fired.
The report found three major flaws in the magazine’s reporting methodology: that Erdely did not try to contact the three friends, instead taking Jackie’s word for it that one of them refused to talk; that she failed to give enough details of the alleged assault when she contacted the fraternity for comment, which made it difficult for the organization to investigate; and that Rolling Stone did not try hard enough to find the person Jackie accused of orchestrating the assault.
If the fraternity had had more information, it might have been able to explain earlier that it did not hold a social function the night of the attack and that none of its members worked at the aquatic center, the report noted.
Dana and Erdely said they had been too accommodating of requests from Jackie that limited their ability to report the story because she said she was a rape victim and asked them not to contact others to corroborate, the report said.
However, Columbia’s report said, Rolling Stone also failed to investigate reporting leads even when Jackie had not specifically asked them not to.
“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 said.
The report added that it was “a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable.”
The report also said the article damaged the reputation of the Phi Kappa Psi chapter and depicted the university administration as neglectful.
In her statement, U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan said the article hurt efforts to fight sexual violence, tarred the school’s reputation, and falsely accused some students “of heinous, criminal acts and falsely depicted others as indifferent to the suffering of their classmate.”
Nonetheless, the article heightened scrutiny of campus sexual assaults amid a campaign by President Barack Obama. The University of Virginia had already been on the Department of Education’s list of 55 colleges under investigation for their handling of sex assault violations.
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