UPDATED: Announcement of lawsuit among reactions to review of retracted Rolling Stone story

Three men and UVA graduates from the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity are now suing Rolling Stone. Photo: Martyn Kyle Three men and UVA graduates from the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity are now suing Rolling Stone. Photo: Martyn Kyle

This is an updated story. The original is included below.

On Sunday, just shy of five months after Rolling Stone posted its explosive and flawed report on an alleged gang rape at UVA online, The Columbia Journalism Review made public a 13,000-word analysis of the reporting and editing failures that led to the publication of the piece. The picture isn’t pretty, and reaction has been swift. Amid the flood of news stories on the review and a flurry of statements from officials doubling down on their criticism of the magazine’s sensational story came an announcement many have speculated was pending: The UVA chapter of Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity where the Rolling Stone piece said the violent rape took place, is planning on suing the magazine.

The report “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 fraternity chapter president Stephen Scipione in a press release Monday afternoon.

Scipione declined to answer questions about plans for a lawsuit, but a spokesman representing the frat said the men and their lawyers were “prepared to pursue all legal actions necessary” to hold Rolling Stone accountable for the defamation the organization suffered as a result of the story.

Whether the CJR review will be a boon to their court case remains to be seen. But there’s one thing everybody can agree on, from Rolling Stone’s leadership to the Columbia dean who co-authored the review to advocates pushing for sexual assault policy reform at UVA: The magazine screwed up.

Not long after “A Rape on Campus” began to fall apart late last year, thanks largely to the re-reporting by The Washington Post of key facts surrounding the alleged rape of the central character, Jackie, at a Phi Kappa Psi party in 2012, the magazine issued a statement that it had lost faith in its key source, and asked Dean Steve Coll of Columbia’s J-school to lead an analysis of what went wrong. (CJR is published by the school.)

Coll and his team revealed fundamental problems with the way the article was developed and reported by freelance journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely, and highlighted failures by story editor Sean Woods and managing editor Will Dana to correct those problems.

Erdely issued a statement published in The New York Times Monday calling the experience of reading the CJR report “brutal and humbling” and apologizing to the magazine’s readers, staff, UVA and affected victims of sexual assault.

“I allowed my concern for Jackie’s well-being, my fear of re-traumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts,” Erdely wrote. “These are mistakes I will not make again.”

But the report suggests the issues at play run deeper than judgment clouded by a reluctance to challenge a traumatized source. It points out three critical reporting failures that probably would have led the magazine to let go of Jackie’s story: Erdely didn’t track down the friends Jackie says she went to after being raped to get their side of the story; she failed to offer full accounts of what she knew of Jackie’s account to Phi Kappa Psi when she sought comment; and she did not verify the existence of “Drew,” Jackie’s alleged rapist, or even insist on being told his real name. Follow-up reports have suggested the rapist Jackie described to the reporter and friends may never have existed, and have also indicated she has given widely differing accounts of her assault. The Charlottesville Police Department said in March that after months of investigation, it found no evidence to support Jackie’s claims.

The measures Rolling Stone should have taken “involve basic, even routine journalistic practice—not special investigative effort,” the CJR report reads.

What’s more, the report found the magazine hid the holes in the story by using pseudonyms for the people Erdely never tracked down. That, said the reviewers, “allowed the magazine to evade coming to terms with reporting gaps.”

In an introduction to the CJR review published on Rolling Stone’s website, Dana said those at the magazine were “committing ourselves to a series of recommendations about journalistic practices that are spelled out in the report.”

But the report itself and stories that quickly went up online after its release Sunday paint a different picture of reaction within the magazine’s ranks. Woods’ and Erdely’s own accounts to CJR contradict each other (for instance, Woods says he pushed the reporter to work harder to find Jackie’s trio of friends, while Erdely says nobody asked her why she hadn’t called them). In an interview with The New York Times, Rolling Stone publisher Jann S. Wenner insisted on putting some of the blame for the disastrous story on Jackie’s doorstep. He also said Dana and Woods would keep their jobs and the magazine would continue working with Erdely.

And the report says Dana and the magazine’s other top staff believe their editorial process is sound.

“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,” he’s quoted as saying. “We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.”

Some here in Charlottesville are afraid the full impact of the magazine’s mistakes has yet to be felt.

Sara Surface, a UVA third-year, is an advocate for sexual assault policy reform who was among the students interviewed by Erdely, and more recently by the CJR reviewers. The last five months have been tough, she said, not just for her, but for everyone at UVA. Now she worries that survivors will stay silent rather than risk speaking up about rape, and the media storm over the retracted story will leave their peers too burned out on the issue to carry on conversations about the difficult task of changing policy to prevent assaults.

“I am fearful that people won’t want to share their stories or report because of the fallout of the Rolling Stone article,” Surface said. “It’s now up to the University and Charlottesville community, through both advocacy and daily interactions, to help rebuild and grow safe spaces for survivors.”

UVA’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity has announced it plans to sue Rolling Stone over a retracted story accusing members of gang rape.

Here is the story that originally ran online on April 6, 2015:

On Sunday, just shy of five months after Rolling Stone posted its explosive and flawed report on a gang rape at UVA online, The Columbia Journalism Review made public a 13,000-word analysis on the reporting and editing failures that led to the publication of the piece. The picture isn’t pretty.

Not long after “A Rape on Campus” began to fall apart late last year,  thanks largely to the re-reporting by the Washington Post of key facts surrounding the alleged 2012 gang rape of the central character, Jackie, at Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, the magazine issued a statement that it had lost faith in its key source, and asked Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Dean Steve Coll to lead an analysis of what went wrong (CJR is published by the school).

Coll and his team’s forensic takedown of the article has revealed fundamental problems with the way it was developed and reported by freelance journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely, and highlighted failures by story editor Sean Woods and managing editor Will Dana to correct those problems. The CJR review also lays out recommended changes to newsroom policies at Rolling Stone and suggestions for journalists trying to conscientiously cover the serious issues surrounding campus sexual assault.

“This report was painful reading, to me personally and to all of us at Rolling Stone,” wrote Dana in a brief introduction to the magazine’s own online posting of the report. “It is also, in its own way, a fascinating document­—a piece of journalism, as Coll describes it, about a failure of journalism.”

In that statement, Dana announced the publication was officially retracting Erdely’s story. The reporter herself issued a statement published in the New York Times—her first since the dismantling of the piece—calling the experience of reading the CJR report “brutal and humbling” and apologizing to the magazine’s readers, staff, UVA and affected victims of sexual assault.

“I allowed my concern for Jackie’s well-being, my fear of re-traumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts,” Erdely wrote. “These are mistakes I will not make again.”

But the report suggests the issues at play run deeper than judgement clouded by a reluctance to challenge a traumatized source. It points out three critical reporting failures that probably would have led the magazine to let go of Jackie’s story as the anchor for its investigation of campus rape.

The failures “involve basic, even routine journalistic practice—not special investigative effort,” the report reads. “And if these reporting pathways had been followed, Rolling Stone very likely would have avoided trouble.”

First, the report says, Erdely should have tracked down the three friends Jackie says she went to after being raped, who were presented negatively in the article, and asked them for their side of the story. As later reporting would show, those friends could have raised serious issues about Jackie’s account: She had told them a fundamentally different story than what was told to Erdely, for starters. Woods should have insisted she push harder to find the friends, despite Erdely’s concerns about alienating Jackie, says the report.

Another big problem: Erdely didn’t offer full accounts of what she knew of Jackie’s story to members of Phi Kappa Psi. Instead, she merely asked them for “comment,” possibly because she wanted to avoid allowing the fraternity to aggressively rebut Jackie’s claims before the piece came out. But the fraternity’s investigation of the claims post-publication revealed significant details in their favor, such as the fact that they didn’t host a party the night Jackie said she was raped in the Phi Psi house.

“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,” says the report.

And finally, the magazine backed down from an initial effort to learn the full name of Jackie’s alleged rapist, the student called “Drew” in the story. Jackie, whom the CJR report says became increasingly hard to reach after Erdely pressured her for identifying information, said she was afraid of “Drew,” but never demanded that the reporter refrain from attempting to track him down.

“She even suggested a way to do so—by checking the fraternity’s roster,” the report says.

But then Jackie went silent completely, according to the report, and with two weeks left before the story closed, Erdely and Woods made a fateful decision: They agreed to use a fake name for the alleged attacker in the story, and wouldn’t try to locate him for their own verification purposes. Jackie once again began participating fully in the reporting and fact-checking of the story. Dana told CJR he was unaware when he read drafts of the story that Erdely and Woods had never learned who “Drew” actually was.

By giving up their search for potential sources who should have been offered a chance to defend themselves, the magazine relied far too heavily on a single source, the report says, and by using pseudonyms, they “allowed the magazine to evade coming to terms with reporting gaps.”

Also highlighted by the CJR examination were failings at the fact-checking level. The journalist who reviewed the story wasn’t named in the piece, but is quoted as saying she was “aware of the fact that UVA believed this story to be true,” which was a misunderstanding. According to the report, when the fact-checker brought her concerns about the use of second-hand quotes to Woods and Erdely, they dismissed them.

The report wraps up with specific recommendations for changes to Rolling Stone’s reporting practices: Avoid using pseudonyms, check derogatory information with multiple sources, and confront key players with details. It also offers suggestions for journalists taking on the challenge of reporting on campus sexual assault, turning to seasoned veterans who have done so successfully. Those reporters make the case for working harder to strike a balance between being sensitive to survivors and verifying facts and gives practical advice for how to corroborate accounts.

In his introduction to the CJR review, Dana said those at Rolling Stone were “committing ourselves to a series of recommendations about journalistic practices that are spelled out in the report.”

But the report itself and stories that quickly went up online after its release Sunday paint a different picture of reaction within the magazine’s ranks. Woods’ and Erdely’s own accounts to CJR of the editing process contradict each other (for instance, Woods says he pushed the reporter to work harder to find Jackie’s trio of friends, while Erdely says nobody asked her why she hadn’t called them). In an interview with The New York Times, Rolling Stone publisher Jann S. Wenner insisted on putting some of the blame for the disastrous story on Jackie’s doorstep. He also said Dana and Woods would keep their jobs and the magazine would continue working with Erdely.

And despite Dana’s stated commitment to change, the report itself says he and the magazine’s other top staff believe their editorial process is sound.

“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,” he’s quoted as saying in the report. “We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.”