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Rolling Stone's failure called 'systemic'; fraternity vows legal action

The fraternity implicated in Rolling Stone's debunked story of a gang-rape plans to pursue legal action

The University of Virginia student at the center of a discredited Rolling Stone rape article was not to blame when a “systemic” failure of journalism led the magazine to publish her unverified account of the alleged attack, those who investigated the story said Monday.

“This failure was not the subject or source’s fault as a matter of journalism,” said Steve Coll, dean of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, who co-wrote the report on the investigation. “It was a product of failed methodology. … We disagree with any suggestion that this was Jackie’s fault,” he said, referring to the student, who was identified only by her first name.

Rolling Stone on Sunday retracted and apologized for the November cover story as soon as the Columbia University report was released. The Columbia team reiterated Monday that it found deep flaws in the reporting and editing of the woman’s narrative of her allegedly being gang-raped at a University of Virginia fraternity.

The public dissection of the report came as criticism against Rolling Stone mounted, with the accused fraternity saying Monday that it would pursue “all available legal action.”

The report “demonstrates the reckless nature in which Rolling Stone researched and failed to verify facts in its article,” said Stephen Scipione, University of Virginia chapter president of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. “This type of reporting serves as a sad example of a serious decline of journalistic standards.”

Questions about the authenticity of the story emerged almost immediately after publication, although the university took the accusation seriously and brought in police. In the end, neither police investigators nor the Columbia University report found evidence that a rape had occurred.

“The abject failure of accountability in journalism that led to Rolling Stone’s ‘A Rape on Campus’ article has done untold damage to the University of Virginia and our commonwealth as a whole,” Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said in a statement Monday. “This false account has been an unnecessary and dangerous distraction from real efforts to combat sexual violence on our college campuses.”

After retracting the story, the magazine removed it from its website and replaced it with the 12,644-word Columbia report.

The investigation, which also found serious lapses in basic journalistic procedure, had been requested by Rolling Stone in December as doubts about the story grew.

Coll said the report’s authors hoped to construct a “case study” that would be useful for journalists, students and the public “to see exactly how the editorial process broke down.”

He said that breakdown was not the result of the account Jackie gave, but of the magazine’s “failed methodology” in not confirming its basic accuracy.

Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and coauthor of the report, said investigators decided not to identify the student known as Jackie even though her allegations of a gang-rape could not be proved.

An attorney for Jackie declined to comment Monday. Jackie did not cooperate with either the police investigation or the Columbia report.

Although Rolling Stone’s systemic breakdowns in verification and attribution marked one of the ugliest blemishes in the magazine’s history, the publisher had no plans to fire the reporter or any of the editors involved in the story, a spokeswoman said.

Rolling Stone’s publisher, Jann S. Wenner, and its managing editor, Will Dana, declined requests for interviews.

In an interview with the New York Times on Sunday, Wenner called Jackie “a really expert fabulist storyteller,” adding that he was not trying to blame the woman, “but obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.”

The Columbia report found no instances of fabrication or lying on the part of Rolling Stone.

Rather than blame a single person — such as the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely — the Columbia report said the story’s “failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking."

"The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all."

The report was written by Coll, Coronel and Derek Kravitz, a postgraduate research scholar at the journalism school.

Through a spokeswoman, Erdely declined an interview request Sunday, but she apologized in a statement after the report was published, calling the last few months “among the most painful of my life.”

She apologized “to Rolling Stone’s readers, to my Rolling Stone editors and colleagues, to the UVA community, and to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.”

matt.pearce@latimes.com

Twitter: @MattDPearce

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

7:58 p.m.: The story was updated throughout with new details.

11:52 a.m.: The story was updated with new details and further reaction to the Columbia University report.

10:15 a.m.: The story was updated with a statement by the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity vowing legal action against Rolling Stone.

9:42 a.m.: The story was updated with comments from a news conference.

The story was first published at 9:20 a.m.

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