Editor’s Note: Magazine mixed up in false rape story

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Journalists who may be tempted to let a juicy story trump the truth should consider what just happened at Rolling Stone.

The magazine has had to undergo some extreme shaming and has retracted a story it ran last November. The story, “A rape on campus,” initially garnered a ton of buzz, but after some serious holes in the reporting became clear, the attention that had been on the story turned to the magazine itself.

Now, Rolling Stone is likely facing a defamation suit from members of a fraternity at the University of Virginia, who were falsely accused of gang rape in the article based on the account of a single anonymous source.

The magazine requested a review from the Columbia School of Journalism, and that report offers a scathing perspective on what went wrong in the reporting and editing of the story. The report is now up on Rolling Stone’s website.

According to the report, last summer, Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely got a hold of an employee at the University of Virginia who works on sexual assault issues. The report states, “Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show ‘what it’s like to be on campus now ... where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture.’”

Erdely already had the story in mind before she started reporting. And the Columbia report cited the use of a single source as a major lapse.

Universities are under intense scrutiny from the White House to reform the “campus rape culture” it believes is rampant at schools around the U.S., including Michigan. That narrative proved too tempting to Erdely and her editors, and it’s going to take time before their reputations — and Rolling Stone’s — recover.