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Review calls disputed Rolling Stone campus rape story case of ‘journalistic failure’

An independent review of a Rolling Stone article about the alleged gang rape of a University of Virginia student has found the magazine failed in the “reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking” of the now-discredited story.

The report, released Sunday evening by Columbia Journalism Review, called the mistakes made in the narrative of “A Rape on Campus” an example of “journalistic failure that was avoidable.”

The review found Rolling Stone relied too heavily on statements made by the story’s subject, a UVA student referred to as “Jackie,” and failed to strictly observe “basic, even routine journalistic practice – not special investigative effort” in reporting, editing and fact-checking several of Jackie’s key assertions.

Rolling Stone did not make a serious effort to identify and interview three of Jackie’s friends who she said picked her up after the assault took place, despite portraying them in an unflattering light in the article, the report found.

When contacted by the writers of the Columbia report, the three friends challenged basic details of Jackie’s account.

The review cited confirmation bias, a tendency to focus on facts that support a preconceived version of events and ignore those that contradict it, as a factor in the mistakes made by reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who penned the story.

“Erdely believed the university was obstructing justice. She felt she had been blocked,” the report said. “Jackie’s experience seemed to confirm this larger pattern.”

Rolling Stone officially retracted the article following the release of the Columbia review.

In a statement to the press, Erdely apologized for what she called “the mistakes and misjudgments” in her reporting.

“I want to offer my deepest apologies: 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,” she said.

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In an interview with the New York Times, Rolling Stone publisher Jann S. Wenner said Erdely, managing editor Will Dana and the article’s editor, Sean Woods, would all remain with the magazine.

The initial article detailed the horrific seven-man gang rape of a University of Virginia freshman named only as “Jackie,” which she said took place during a 2012 party at the prestigious Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. The piece used Jackie’s story to examine what it called UVA’s “troubling history of indifference” to incidents of sexual assault and the issue of sexual violence on U.S. college campuses generally.

The piece reinvigorated a national conversation about sexual assault on college campuses — and placed both Phi Kappa Psi and UVA in the hot seat. But two weeks after the story was published, that conversation was supplanted by questions about the story’s reliability.

A Washington Post report cast doubt on many of the story’s key details, and Rolling Stone acknowledged that Erdely relied almost entirely on Jackie’s version of events, never contacting the alleged rapists, per Jackie’s request.

These and other revelations prompted harsh criticism of Rolling Stone’s reporting and editorial choices in publishing the story, damaging the magazine’s reputation and credibility.

Adding fuel to the fire, Rolling Stone responded with a note to its readers that said, in part, “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.” The last line has since been removed from the note.

Many saw the statement as an instance of victim blaming, and an attempt to disguise Rolling Stone’s failures in reporting the story.

In December, Rolling Stone tasked the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism with conducting a review of the editorial process that led to the story’s publication.

The review was led by Sheila Coronel, Dean of Academic Affairs, and Steve Coll, the journalism school’s dean. Coll will discuss the review’s findings on Monday’s broadcast of the PBS NewsHour.

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