The embarrassing reversal followed months of criticism culminating in a scathing review led by Steve Coll, the dean of Columbia University’s journalism school.
The independent review, published Sunday night, identified numerous basic errors in the reporting of the story, including writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s decision to simply take the accuser’s story at face value, compounded by her failure to give members of the fraternity implicated in the alleged crime an adequate opportunity to hear and rebut the accusations.
The report observed: 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.” Above all, the 13,000-word report concluded: “The editors invested Rolling Stone's reputation in a single source.”
Questions emerged almost immediately following the publication of the sensational piece, titled “A Rape on Campus,” in November 2014, as other journalists, police, and Erdely herself were unable to confirm key elements of the events narrated by the anonymous accuser, called “Jackie” in the article.
Among other things, no one matching the description of the supposed attackers was a member of the fraternity at that time, and the fraternity had not hosted a party on the date in September 2012 mentioned in the story.
The controversy and ensuing retraction, coming at a time of heightened scrutiny of sexual assault on college campuses, have had impacts far beyond the damage to Rolling Stone’s journalistic reputation.
As the story quickly unraveled, advocates for sexual-assault victims suggested it would only make it more difficult for actual victims to come forward and have their stories believed.
In a note prefacing the report on the Rolling Stone Web site, managing editor Will Dana acknowledged these wider ramifications: “Sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses, and it is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward. It saddens us to think that their willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings.”
Many critics also took issue with what they saw as the magazine’s attempts to blame Jackie for its own failure to perform even basic journalistic diligence. Publisher Jann Wenner echoed this stance in an interview with The New York Times following the publication of the independent review, describing the anonymous subject as “a really expert fabulist storyteller,” adding, “obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.”