Rolling Stone Has Not Retracted Its UVA Rape Story

by Tim Cavanaugh

Although Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana yesterday published a “Note to Our Readers” regarding the magazine’s University of Virginia rape story, the note in no way says what Rolling Stone’s current designation of the story is.

“We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story,” Dana wrote, but the note contains neither any retraction nor any reference to correction of material in the story.

The original story is still available in full at RollingStone.com, and while it now includes the Note to Readers appended at the beginning, the story itself does not seem to have been corrected in any way. Names, including the name of the fraternity Phi Kappa Psi, have so far not been changed. Although the first paragraph of the Note praises the story for generating “worldwide headlines and much soul-searching at UVA,” it does not say whether Rolling Stone does or does not stand by the story, in full or in part.

Dana does not specify whether the story is considered retracted, under revision, being corrected, or in some other status. As a result, coverage of the Rolling Stone story by other media is replete with nebulous phrasing saying the magazine “backed off” or “orphaned” the piece.

Neither Dana nor the magazine responded to questions emailed to the magazine’s editorial and publicity addresses as well as a presumptive address for Dana himself; questions tweeted to Dana’s Twitter account; and a message left at Wenner Media’s Los Angeles phone number. Wenner Media’s New York telephone number is unattended and does not accept messages.

It is important for the magazine to specify, quickly, whether any changes have been made to the online version of the story, whether the online version will be revised, and what Rolling Stone institutionally considers the status of Sabrina Erdely’s story to be. In addition to having disappointed countless moviegoers who believed the fact-checking and story-spiking plotline in Almost Famous, the magazine may be compounding its legal liabilities by allowing the story to remain unchanged. Conversely, if Dana still believes the story to be correct in some or most of its particulars, he owes it to Erdely to say so.

The level of correction necessary is difficult but not impossible to do within a few days, as was demonstrated recently by io9 editor Annalee Newitz, who thoroughly revised a bad animal testing story almost immediately after it went live and took responsibility, using the first person singular, in a lengthy note about the correction.

Update: Rolling Stone has changed the note to readers, adding some material and eliminating Dana’s name. Here is the relevant new material: 

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. The fraternity has issued a formal statement denying the assault and asserting that there was no “date function or formal event” on the night in question. Jackie herself is now unsure if the man she says lured her into the room where the rape occurred, identified in the story, as “Drew,” was a Phi Psi brother. According to the Washington Post, “Drew” actually belongs to a different fraternity and when contacted by the paper, he denied knowing Jackie. Jackie told Rolling Stone that after she was assaulted, she ran into “Drew” at a UVA pool where they both worked as lifeguards. In its statement, the Phi Psi says none of its members worked at the pool in the fall of 2012. A friend of Jackie’s (who we were told would not speak to Rolling Stone) told the Washington Post that he found Jackie that night a mile from the school’s fraternities. She did not appear to be “physically injured at the time” but was shaken.  She told him that that she had been forced to have oral sex with a group of men at a fraternity party, but he does not remember her identifying a specific house. Other friends of Jackie’s told the Washington Post that they now have doubts about her narrative, but Jackie told the Washington Post that she firmly stands by the account she gave to Erdely. 

We published the article with the firm belief that it was accurate. Given all of these reports, however, we have come to the conclusion that we were mistaken in honoring Jackie’s request to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. In trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault, we made a judgment – the kind of judgment reporters and editors make every day. We should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story. These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie. We apologize to anyone who was affected by the story and we will continue to investigate the events of that evening.

The content of the story itself does not appear to have changed.

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