Rolling Stone under attack from all sides as questions arise over university rape story

Magazine admits it made reporting mistakes

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The Independent Online

Rolling Stone magazine is facing a full-blown crisis after it was forced to back away from an article purportedly revealing a shocking gang-rape on the campus of a prestigious American university.

An article in the November issue of the magazine, entitled Rape on Campus, highlighted the alleged gang-rape of an 18-year-old student, identified as Jackie, at the University of Virginia in the autumn of 2012. The article said the rape had been carried out by members of a student fraternity and that the college authorities had failed to investigate the attack and other, previous sexual assaults.

The article, which exposed an apparent culture of sexual violence at the university, triggered an investigation by the college authorities and the suspension of all student fraternities. A number of protests were held by student groups, angered at the apparent failure of the authorities at the respected public university to properly investigate the attack. The article highlighted what appeared to be a national problem, rather than one confined to the University of Virginia, in the city of Charlottesville. 

But questions have been asked about the authenticity of the article after it emerged several key elements of it could not be corroborated. It also emerged that the author of the article failed to ask for a comment from the seven students accused of raping Jackie, something that was widely criticised by other US media organisations and commentators.

As the controversy grew, Rolling Stone, which is famed for its culture of fact-checking and accuracy, was at the weekend forced to issue what was in effect both a retraction and an apology. 

“In the face of new information reported by the Washington Post and other news outlets, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account,” wrote managing editor Will Dana. “These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie. We apologise to anyone who was affected by the story and we will continue to investigate the events of that evening.”

In a note attached to the online version of the article by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, Mr Dana said the report’s author was wrong to agree to a request from Jackie not to approach the alleged attackers. He also said that the student group at the centre of the allegation, Phi Kappa Psi, had formally denied its members were involved and said it had not hosted a function on the evening of 28 September, 2012, the night Jackie said she was raped after a fraternity party.

He also said that further interviews with Jackie revealed she was no longer sure a man, identified in the article as “Drew”, who allegedly took her to a room where she said she was raped by the seven men, was a member of Phi Kappa Psi.

“According to the Washington Post, 'Drew' actually belongs to a different fraternity and when contacted by the paper, he denied knowing Jackie,” Mr Dana added. 

While the episode has damaged the reputation of Rolling Stone and left it open to sniping and criticism from its rivals, campaigners have warned that other victims of sexual assault could be discouraged from coming forward and reporting attacks if they fear they will not be believed. 

The university authorities have said they are committed to dealing with the issue of sexual assaults on campus. The university’s President, Teresa Sullivan, told the Washington Post that the apology by Rolling Stone would not alter the university’s focus on “one of the most difficult and critical issues facing higher education today - sexual violence on college campuses”.

“The University remains first and foremost concerned with the care and support of our students and, especially, any survivor of sexual assault,” she added. “Our students, their safety, and their well-being, remain our top priority.”