On Sunday, Rolling Stone officially retracted its article about an alleged brutal gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity party after a report concluded that it failed "basic, even routine journalistic practice" in its reporting and fact-checking. That same evening, Rolling Stone deleted the UVA rape story from its website and replaced it with the full text of the Columbia School of Journalism's findings. The original hyperlink for the article now redirects to Columbia's report, as well as a statement from the publication. But there's always a record of anything posted online — including this botched story. Even though the story is off the magazine's website, here's where you can read the original Rolling Stone article "A Rape on Campus."
What's important to note here is that many of the claims made in the Rolling Stone story, written by reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely, have since been repudiated by police, school officials, and The Washington Post. Soon after the article was published, the Post found holes in the account offered by Jackie, a pseudonym for a then-18-year-old UVA student who told Erdely seven men raped her at a fraternity party in September 2012. (It's equally important to note that, in its official investigation, Virginia police noted that a lack of evidence in no way implied that “something terrible didn't happen to Jackie.") But perhaps a look at the original story can help provide insight into what went wrong in Rolling Stone's editorial process.
"A Rape on Campus" was included in Rolling Stone's Dec. 4, 2014, print edition, so the story will forever be available to anyone with a hard copy of that particular magazine issue (#1223). The original online story, however, has been saved by the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, which, as its name implies, allows users to revisit webpages in their different iterations as they evolve over time. According to the archive, there have been 300 versions of the story captured from its initial posting on Nov. 19, 2014 to when it was finally taken down on April 5, 2015.
The first Wayback save shows the original "A Rape on Campus" article published on Nov. 19, a version that stood untouched for more than two weeks as an onslaught of messages commiserating or criticizing the story flooded its comment board. On Dec. 5, 2014, Rolling Stone issued a note to its readers, apologizing for the flawed story and outlining specific discrepancies the Post found in Jackie's account and Rolling Stone's reporting. That same day, a shortened version of the editor's note, penned by Managing Editor Will Dana, was attached to the top of Erdely's original story. What was initially left out from that note, however, were the Post's and other media outlet's criticism of the story. Information regarding the inconsistencies in Rolling Stone's story were then added back two days later.
On Dec. 22, 2014, the magazine announced it would ask Columbia's journalism school to review its editorial practice. But the story as it was originally reported, along with Dana's note, continued to stay on Rolling Stone's website. On Sunday — exactly four months after the magazine first acknowledged it may have bungled its reporting — Columbia unveiled its critical findings and the story was finally taken down.
In a statement released Sunday, Dana said Rolling Stone decided to officially retract the story after the Columbia report found serious gaps in its editorial process — from reporting to writing, fact-checking, and verification. Despite the serious errors made, the magazine decided that no one would be fired. Dana said:
The report was painful reading, to me personally and to all of us at Rolling Stone. It is also, in its own way, a fascinating document — a piece of journalism, as Coll describes it, about a failure of journalism. With its publication, we are officially retracting "A Rape on Campus."
A reread of "A Rape on Campus" brings a mixed bag of feelings. Even though you know where the story behind the story ends, Jackie's account remains haunting. This specific case might have holes, but the aftermath outlined by Rolling Stone — skeptical reactions from officials, the difficulties in speaking up about sexual assault — has a familiar feel, an experience that has been echoed by victims at other college campuses. One magazine's mishandling should not silence those stories and others from coming forward.
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