Rolling Stone Claims Fault in Discredited UVA Rape Story Was Sensitivity to Alleged Victim

AP Photo/Steve Helber
AP Photo/Steve Helber

In the blow-up that has followed the Rolling Stone story about “Jackie,” a student at UVA who claimed she had been gang-raped, Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana allowed that the mistake resulted from “individual failure” and “procedural failure, an institutional failure… Every single person at every level of this thing had opportunities to pull the strings a little harder, to question things a little more deeply, and that was not done.”

Yet Dana also protested that what prompted the fiasco was not simply journalistic laziness, but care and concern for the alleged victim, saying, “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who wrote the story, added, “If this story was going to be about Jackie, I can’t think of many things that we would have been able to do differently. … Maybe the discussion should not have been so much about how to accommodate her but should have been about whether she would be in this story at all.”

The question remains: why didn’t Erdely interview Jackie’s friends for more evidence? In the first interview Erdely conducted with Jackie, she told Erdely that after the alleged rape, she called three friends, Ryan, Alex and Kathryn. Erdely said she asked Alex Pinkleton, a student and assault survivor, to aid her in finding the three friends, but Pinkleton said she would have to ask Jackie for permission; Erdely let the matter drop.

As The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism report noted, “It should have been possible for Erdely to identify the trio independently. Facebook friend listings might have shown the names. Or, Erdely could have asked other current students, besides Pinkleton, to help.”

Instead, Erdely relied solely on Jackie. On July 29, 2014, 15 days after their initial phone call, she asked Jackie to help her find Ryan; Jackie responded, according to Erdely’s notes, that while “Ryan may be awkward, I don’t understand why he wouldn’t.” But when Erdely left repeated messages asking for help, there was no answer.

More than six weeks later, on Sept. 11, Erdely met Jackie in person for the first time and mentioned Ryan; Jackie answered, “I did talk to Ryan,” but then asserted that Ryan had refused to talk, stating, “No! … I’m in a fraternity here, Jackie, I don’t want the Greek system to go down, and it seems like that’s what you want to happen… I don’t want to be a part of whatever little shit show you’re running.” Soon after, Erdely told Jackie, “Ryan is obviously out.”

But Jackie never asked Rolling Stone to eschew contacting the three friends; Erdely later admitted that if “I work round Jackie, am I going to drive her from the process?” She worried that Jackie would withdraw from cooperating, though that threat was never made.

Speaking of the three friends, Erdely lamely protested, “They were always on my list of people” to track down, but insisted that she simply grew too busy reporting how UVA responded to the allegations. She attested that she didn’t remember whether she and Sean Woods, the editor of the piece, spoke at length about interviewing Jackie’s friends, adding, “We just kind of agreed… We just gotta leave it alone.”

Woods, conversely, stated that he and Erdely spoke about the issue, and when she told him she had tried everything to find the friends without success, he let the matter drop.

The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism report flatly rejected Rolling Stone‘s excuse of sensitivity for Jackie on their journalistic failures: “the explanation that Rolling Stone failed because it deferred to a victim cannot adequately account for what went wrong.”


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