Sabrina Erdely’s feature in Rolling Stone about a gang rape of a young woman at a University of Virginia frat party sent shock waves through the media, and it sparked fury in readers who were horrified not just by the details of the attack but by the systemic callousness the primary source, referred to as Jackie, faced at every turn. What was even more shocking, however, was when Rolling Stone issued a retraction of “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” referring to it as “a journalistic failure that was avoidable.”
Court documents, which were filed as part a defamation lawsuit against the magazine, show how the story went from a watershed moment in confronting college rape culture to a journalistic nightmare. As the Washington Post reports, Erdley wrote in her court declaration that she fully trusted Jackie during the entirety of her investigation, and the eventual publication of the feature.
When I lost faith in Jackie’s credibility following a series of conversations in the early-morning hours of December 5, I immediately alerted my editors at Rolling Stone to tell them that we needed to retract the Article. That morning, my editors and I drafted a statement making clear that we were effectively retracting the Article, which was appended to the online Article and publicly disseminated by around midday on December 5.
If I had had any doubts prior to publication about the integrity of this story, or about Jackie’s credibility as a source, I would not have published it; instead, I would have gone back to my extensive reporting file to write a different story, one in which Jackie’s story was at most a footnote.