The UVA Rape Story: How to Know What NOT to Believe

Larry Margasak
The University of Virginia rotunda. Photo by Bob Mical via flickr. Used under Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)
Larry Margasak, a retired Associated Press reporter, examines red flags for readers in the Rolling Stone report.

In November 2014, Rolling Stone published a report about what it called “a brutal assault” at the University of Virginia. The article began with the victim, identified only as a student named “Jackie,” describing a horrific event at a fraternity house that left nothing to the imagination.

The article by Sabrina Rubin Erdely — a contributing editor of the magazine who had previously written about sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church and in the military — was described as “chilling,” “explosive,” and a “bombshell.” It shocked the nation and led to a national discussion about sexual violence on campuses nationwide — and especially at the University of Virginia, which Erdely faulted for an indifferent attitude toward such assaults.

 Within days, though, the story fell apart — dismantled, piece by piece, by The Washington Post.

On April 5, following a lengthy investigation by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Rolling Stone retracted Erdely’s article. The lede in the Post, which provided the real investigative journalism in this story, said:

“A months-long investigation into a flawed Rolling Stone magazine article about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia has concluded that the story reflected failures at virtually every level, from reporting to editing to fact-checking. In a 12,000-word report that reads like a reportorial autopsy, a three-person team at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism called the November article ‘a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. . . . The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting’ that would likely have exposed the story as dubious.”

The now-discredited article was terrible for journalism, but valuable for readers and students assessing the credibility of a news story. The lesson: If you don’t see corroboration for information provided by a single source, beware of what you’re reading. (Or, in the words of a tried and true journalism proverb: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”)

How should readers have known what to believe? Here are several red flags that could have raised suspicions:

FLAG 1: The account of the gang rape relies solely on one source, the victim, identified only by a first name.

The point here isn’t that Jackie should be identified by her full name. No respectable news organization would identify a rape victim who desired anonymity. However, a single-source accusation of criminal felonies, from someone whose identity is concealed, placed an extra burden on Erdely to go all out to corroborate as much of Jackie’s story as she could. That effort wasn’t there.

(The Post, in its follow-up, did the kind of reporting that readers should expect. The newspaper spoke not only to Jackie, but to dozens of current and former members of the fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi; to the fraternity’s faculty adviser; to Jackie’s current and former roommates; and to others on campus. After the Post began reporting on the discrepancies in Jackie’s story, Rolling Stone published an editor’s note saying that the magazine had made an agreement with Jackie not to contact her date or others involved in the alleged assault. In fact, the Columbia investigation found that there was no such agreement: “Jackie made no demand that Rolling Stone not try to identify” her date “and even suggested a way to do so — by checking the fraternity roster.” In any case, most news organizations would never honor such a request because it prevents them from corroborating information and reporting all sides of a story.)

FLAG 2: The original story contained some obvious holes that, if filled, might have caused Rolling Stone to back away from it.

Jackie said her date that night, identified in the article as “Drew,” worked with her at the campus pool. She told Rolling Stone she switched her shift in the hopes of never seeing him again and that she later quit her lifeguarding job. Readers might have wondered why the reporter didn’t mention any attempt to find “Drew” through the pool supervisor, employees or other student lifeguards.

Jackie said she left the fraternity through a side door shoeless, her face beaten and her dress spattered with blood, while the party went on. Readers had the right to expect a vigorous attempt by Rolling Stone to find people who were at the party to see whether anyone saw a young woman in this condition.

Jackie said she recognized a student who violated her with a beer bottle as a member of her “tiny” anthropology discussion group. If Rolling Stone was going to use that detail, shouldn’t readers expect some effort to track down students in that group to see whether anyone knew Jackie? The students could confirm whether she was in the group. And if a male member of the group had said that he knew Jackie, he might be willing to comment if he had never been to a Phi Kappa Psi party or had never seen Jackie outside the group.

(“Drew” has never been located, although Jackie apparently provided two different names of her date to friends. The Post reported that it interviewed a student whose name was similar to one of the names Jackie provided. The student told the Post he worked at the pool but had never met Jackie and didn’t belong to Phi Kappa Psi. The fraternity said none of its members worked at the pool in 2012. The three friends who came to Jackie’s aid after the alleged attack said she gave a different name for her date — one that didn’t match anyone listed as a student at the university. The university confirmed there was no such student by that name.)

FLAG 3: Erdely never explained her interactions with the three friends whom Jackie summoned for help.

Readers wouldn’t be expected to know that reporters for reputable news organizations typically explain why people in their stories might not be fully identified — but in this piece, they could spot this blatant omission on their own. The article includes direct quotes from the three friends, whom Erdely identifies as “two boys and a girl (whose names are changed).”

Readers might ask: Were they interviewed in person? Over the phone? Did they comment through email or Twitter? Did they insist on being identified only by false first names, and agree to cooperate only under that condition? Did the reporter explain she granted anonymity because they were crucial to the story? Erdely also sows confusing by stating that one of the three, who was directly quoted, declined to be interviewed.

(It turns out that Erdely couldn’t have explained these things because the three told the Post that they were never contacted by Rolling Stone. The student who supposedly declined to be interviewed told the Post that he would have agreed to an interview if contacted.)

The quotes from the three friends raise their own flag. The friends were quoted — while discussing whether to go to the police — as more concerned with damaging their social status than helping Jackie. Readers may ask whether that sounds like the way they would react to a friend desperately seeking help.

(The Post’s later interviews with these friends proved devastating to Jackie’s description of events, contradicting what had appeared in Rolling Stone. Her friends told the Post that Jackie said that she had been at a fraternity party and had been forced to perform oral sex on five men. While Jackie was distraught, there was no blood or a sign of physical injury. She did not specifically identify the fraternity. In subsequent interviews, the friends rejected the Rolling Stone quotes even more forcefully and eventually went on the record, using their real names.)

FLAG 4: Comments from the university or the fraternity were not placed high in the story.

Readers could ask if this was a deliberate attempt to present a one-sided story. Presenting the other side in a prominent place is standard practice for any reputable news organization.

The responses themselves raise a flag for readers. More than 20 paragraphs into the story, Erdely said that after initially being stonewalled, the school allowed her to interview president Teresa Sullivan. The only quote from Sullivan at that point is “I don’t know.” Much later, near the end of the 9,000-word piece, Sullivan says, “We do have a fraternity under investigation.” The reader may ask whether that’s all there is.

(What the Post later reported would be shocking to any journalist. The newspaper obtained an audio recording of Erdely’s 44-minute interview with Sullivan and discovered that Erdely never mentioned Jackie or the specific allegations of what Jackie said occurred that night. Sullivan’s quote about a fraternity under investigation was in response to a question about “three separate allegations of gang rapes” at Phi Kappa Psi. Further, the Post obtained emails between the Rolling Stone reporter, the magazine’s fact-checker and the university. The emails showed that the writer and the fact-checker never sought a reaction to Jackie’s story or even gave an indication of the story Erdely was pursuing.)

The first mention of a response from the fraternity is even deeper in the story than the first comment from Sullivan. It should be a flag that the fraternity’s national executive director and the chapter president were providing preliminary responses, saying they had no evidence of a gang rape at that point. Readers might ask whether the reporter gave them time to investigate and at least comment on whether there was a party the night in question.

(The fraternity checked its records and found that no social event was held at the house on the night in question. The local police, conducting their own investigation of Jackie’s allegations, discovered a time-stamped photo from that night that showed one person in the main room of the house and no indications of any party. That investigation concluded that there was “no substantive basis to support the account alleged in the Rolling Stone article.”)

FLAG 5: The description of the alleged attack is so graphic and brutal that it’s legitimate to ask whether nine students (seven rapists, two egging them on) at an elite university would commit a felony that could put them away for many years. This doesn’t mean a gang rape on campus couldn’t happen. It just means it’s a fair question to ask, especially since readers can think of some obvious ways an investigation could identify the rapists.

As serious as date rape would be for anyone convicted of such an act, think about the consequences for a group of students who were lying in wait in a dark room for their victim. Might they have called the whole thing off when Jackie crashed through a glass table at the outset of the attack? 

Here are some other reasons the reader could question whether the students in the room would commit this act.

The Post said it interviewed dozens of current and former members of the fraternity. Wouldn’t authorities do the same and have a good chance of determining who was present? If nine students were in the room, isn’t it possible one might buckle under a police investigation and identify the others? Wouldn’t “Drew,” the date, worry that Jackie would decide to give his name to police? Would perpetrators who would not want to be caught have yelled out “nicknames like Armpit and Blanket,” as Erdely reported, during the attack?

Jackie’s three friends have said they believe that something happened to her that night. Readers may still learn more. But what won’t change are the red flags in the original story. And that’s why the article itself is a teachable moment.