(CN) – After Rolling Stone retracted its salacious article about a supposed gang rape at the University of Virginia, the implicated fraternity vowed Monday to take legal action.
Phi Kappa Psi came under heavy fire after Rolling Stone went to press this past November with “A Rape on Campus,” describing a University of Virginia student’s account of being raped by seven men at a Phi Kappa Psi party.
The article by Sabrina Rubin Erdely initially made waves because of its horrifying subject matter, but attention quickly shifted to the credibility of the subject, described in the article only as Jackie.
Erdely began to believe her trust in Jackie had been misplaced as well, just as the Washington Post ran a follow-up article that brought the Rolling Stone’s journalistic integrity to a head.
Rolling Stone then voluntarily enlisted the Columbia School of Journalism to investigate its work. That three-month study culminated on April 5 with a report on what it called a “work of journalism about a failure of journalism.”
With its publication, Rolling Stone noted that it was officially retracting UVA story.
“Rolling Stone’s repudiation of the main narrative in ‘A Rape on Campus’ is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable,” the report says. “The 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. “
With Erdely relying heavily on Jackie to provide nearly all the details of her story, editors Sean Woods and Will Dana compounded this error by failing to insist that Erdely verify the existence of the attacker or interview Jackie’s friends, the report found.
The article instead advanced with pseudonyms glossing over the gaps in the magazine’s reporting. Rolling Stone’s staff had the resources to properly research the article, but simply failed to examine any hard questions about their work, according to the report by Columbia School of Journalism dean Steve Coll, dean of academic affairs Sheila Coronel and postgraduate research scholar Derek Kravitz.
While Erdely’s article was intended to “sound an alarm” about sexual assault on college campuses, it may instead have spread the idea that women make up stories about being raped, and may make some women more hesitant to come forward, Columbia’s report says.
Agreeing with the report’s finding that the article also damaged the reputations of Phi Kappa Psi and UVA, the Virginia Alpha Chapter of Phi Kappa Psi announced Monday that it will pursue legal action against Rolling Stone.
“The report by Columbia University’s School of Journalism demonstrates the reckless nature in which Rolling Stone researched and failed to verify facts in its article that erroneously accused Phi Kappa Psi of crimes its members did not commit,” Stephen Scipione, president of the Virginia Alpha Chapter of Phi Kappa Psi, said in a statement. “This type of reporting serves as a sad example of a serious decline of journalistic standards.”
Having received Columbia’s report on Monday, lawyers for the fraternity chapter have not yet finalized their strategy, fraternity spokesman Brian Ellis said in an interview, adding that they hope to move their case against Rolling Stone forward in the next month or two.
Erdely’s article gave Phi Kappa Psi a national reputation for being involved in sexual assault, and its UVA chapter house was vandalized multiple times in the wake of the article’s publication, according to press releases from the fraternity. The fraternity chapter was fully reinstated on UVA’s campus in January, but Ellis said the reputation issue remains ongoing despite journalistic and police evidence that Rolling Stone’s portrayal of a Phi Kappa Psi event was false. The Charlottesville Police Department closed its four-month investigation into the fraternity in late March, concluding that there was no evidence to support the claims of sexual assault in the fraternity house as described in Rolling Stone.
The fraternity is trying to move forward with its usual activities on UVA’s campus, Ellis said.
“These guys are trying to put their lives back together,” Ellis said in an interview.
Rolling Stone noted that the next issue of its magazine, hitting newsstands on April 8, will carry a condensed version of the report.
“We are also committing ourselves to a series of recommendations about journalistic practices that are spelled out in the report,” managing editor Will Dana said in the forward to the report on Rolling Stone’s website. “We would like to apologize to our readers and to all of those who were damaged by our story and the ensuing fallout, including members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and UVA administrators and students.”
Phi Kapp Psi noted Monday that its UVA chapter and its national organization adhere to a “strict zero tolerance policy” with regard to sexual assault, and that its members are committed to setting a positive example for the UVA and Charlottesville communities.
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