Rolling Stone’s UVA Rape Story Wasn’t Just Wrong—It Was Deliberately Misleading
The full report on Rolling Stone’s botched story about an alleged rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house went online last night. The 12,000 word document, produced by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, is incredibly detailed and incredibly damning. It pins the story’s flaws on failures of reporting, editing, and fact-checking up and down the line.
But perhaps the most damning thing to come out of the report—in combination with the surrounding coverage—is that not only didRolling Stone’s editorial team get the story wrong, they made editorial choices, and statements to the press, that obfuscated important details about the reporting that went into the story and what it had actually confirmed.
The two biggest flaws in the reporting were 1) the failure to contact any of the three friends that the story’s victim, Jackie, told reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely that she spoke to the night the assault she described took place, and 2) the failure to contact or even verify the existence of the lead assailant, an individual that Jackie claimed worked as a pool lifeguard with her.
Yet despite the fact that Erdely never made contact with any of them, the story contains unflattering direct quotes from the three friends, including one in which a friend says that it would be a “shit show” on campus if word got out about her frat-house assault. It also describes various details about the lead assailant, dubbed "Drew" for the purposes of the story, none of which Erdely verified at all, indeed, none of which she could have verified given that she never confirmed his existence.
In both cases, the decision was made to use pseudonyms for the individuals who weren’t contacted. The tactic is revealing about the problems with the story, but also about how Rolling Stone tried to mask those problems.
As Sheila Coronel, Columbia Journalism School’s Dean of Academic Affairs, tells CJR in an interview about the report, “pseudonyms were used mainly to paper over gaps in the reporting. Of all the many reasons you might want to use pseudonyms, this one should never be considered.”
The decision to use pseudonyms, in other words, was made in order to cover for the fact that critical story details hadn’t been verified.
In addition, the report notes that Erdely’s editor on the story, Sean Woods, made the decision to remove language noting that Erdely had not contacted “Drew” or even been able to identify him. As the Columbia report on the article says…
Rolling Stone's editors did not make clear to readers that Erdely and her editors did not know "Drew's" true name, had not talked to him and had been unable to verify that he existed. That was fundamental to readers' understanding. In one draft of the story, Erdely did include a disclosure. She wrote that Jackie "refuses to divulge [Drew's] full name to RS," because she is "gripped by fears she can barely articulate." Woods cut that passage as he was editing. He "debated adding it back in" but "ultimately chose not to."
That’s not a reason. It’s not even an excuse. It’s just a decision to hide pertinent information from readers. Woods chose to remove language that would have clarified what the reporting had and hadn’t established. He chose to make the story less transparent.
And he did it more than once. An early draft of Erdely’s story included a note—not an actual story line—indicating that the account of Jackie’s assault, including the quotes from the three friends is entirely in “Jackie’s POV.” Woods decided to allow those quotes (including one in which one of the friends says it would be a “shitshow” if she followed up against her attacker) to run without alerting the reader that they came entirely from Jackie’s recollection. From the Columbia report:
Woods allowed the "shit show" quote from "Randall" into the story without making it clear that Erdely had not gotten it from him but from Jackie. "I made that call," Woods said. Not only did this mislead readers about the quote's origins, it also compounded the false impression that Rolling Stone knew who "Randall" was and had sought his and the other friends' side of the story.
Again, a decision was made to avoid providing all the relevant information to the readers. It was functionally a decision, as the report says, to mislead readers.
That approach carried over into the interviews that Erdely and Woods gave after the story was published and questions arose about its accuracy.
On a Slate podcast, Erdely was extremely vague when responding to questions about whether she had talked to or communicated with the accused.
"Yeah, I reached out to them [the accused] in multiple ways," Erdely told Slate. But, she said, "they were kind of hard to get in touch with because their contact page was pretty outdated." So she "wound up getting in touch with their local president, who sent me an e-mail, and then I talked with their sort of, their national guy, who’s kind of their national crisis manager. They were both helpful in their own way, I guess.”
Questioned repeatedly about whether she had contact “the boys” and the “actual boys” in question, Erdely declined to answer directly. She had plenty of opportunity to answer the questions and explain what she had done. She didn't.
In a separate follow-up, editor Sean Woods admitted to The Post that Rolling Stone had not contacted the story’s alleged attackers. But he also claimed that the magazine had confirmed their identities:
Sean Woods, who edited the Rolling Stone story, said in an interview that Erdely did not talk to the alleged assailants. “We did not talk to them. We could not reach them,” he said in an interview.
However, he said, “we verified their existence,” in part by talking to Jackie’s friends. “I’m satisfied that these guys exist and are real. We knew who they were.”
(A spokesperson for Rolling Stone later told the Post that Woods "misspoke" when describing efforts to contact the alleged assailants.)
In the same Post story, Erdely again refused to directly answer questions about what she had verified:
Erdely declined to address specific questions about her reporting when contacted on Sunday and Monday.
“I could address many of [the questions] individually . . . but by dwelling on this, you’re getting sidetracked,” she wrote in an e-mail response to The Post’s inquiry. “As I’ve already told you, the gang-rape scene that leads the story is the alarming account that Jackie — a person whom I found to be credible — told to me, told her friends, and importantly, what she told the UVA administration, which chose not to act on her allegations in any way — i.e., the overarching point of the article. THAT is the story: the culture that greeted her and so many other UVA women I interviewed, who came forward with allegations, only to be met with indifference.”
She added, “I think I did my due diligence in reporting this story; RS’s excellent editors, fact-checkers, and lawyers all agreed.”
Once again, we see a declsion not to be perfectly straight about exactly what reporting had been done, or exactly what that reporting had established. Yes, Erdely says that it was Jackie's story, as told by her, but she also insists that the story should be accepted based on the "diligence" of her reporting and her belief that the story is credible.
This wasn’t an accident. It wasn't a slip-up. It was a choice, made repeatedly, to avoid being perfectly clear with readers and members of the media about what, exactly, the story had established. It was a choice to withhold or omit true and relevant information that would have changed how people viewed the story, which is to say that it was a choice to deceive them.
This isn’t to say that anyone at Rolling Stone believed the story itself to be false. At the time of publication, at least, there’s every reason to believe that those working on the story thought it was true.
As Erdely told the Post, it was a story that she found credible. (The Columbia report says that Erdely began having some doubts about a week after the story was published, when, in a follow up correspondence, Jackie couldn’t recall how to spell Drew’s last name.) That thinking, the belief that the story was true, is, I suspect, why the decision was made to remove information about what Erdely had actually verified. Erdely and her editors at Rolling Stone found the story to be credible—and chose not to include details that might have cast doubt on whether or not it was.