Fraternity to Sue Rolling Stone Over U.Va. Rape Story

The fraternity at the center of the now-debunked and retracted Rolling Stone story on a reported gang rape at its University of Virginia chapter is suing the magazine, it said Monday, just after a top journalism school released its damning report on what it called the magazine's systemic "journalistic failure."

The fraternity plans to pursue all available legal action against the magazine, it said in a statement, just as two deans of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism discussed their findings with reporters.

"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," said the fraternity's U.Va. chapter president Stephen Scipione.

The Columbia report had found that the article damaged the reputation of the Phi Kappa Psi chapter at U.Va. and depicted the university administration as neglectful.

If the fraternity had had more information, it might have been able to explain earlier that it did not hold a social function the night of the attack and that none of its members worked at the aquatic center, the report noted.

Earlier, before the Columbia report was released, the fraternity had called the article defamatory and said it was exploring legal options. 

Columbia's deans meanwhile defended the report Monday at a news conference with reporters, in particular the fact that they had not recommended that anybody lose their job over journalistic failures they called systematic and broad.

"These are not failures of dishonesty,” the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism's dean Steve Coll told reporters at a Monday afternoon news conference. "They are systematic failures, collective failures.”

He and academic dean Sheila Coronel stressed that the false story was “not the source’s fault,” and Coronel blamed "problems of newsroom standards and procedures.”

"Journalistically, this was a failure of policy and of methodology and of practice, and it wasn't the subject's failure," Coll added.

Rolling Stone has pledged to review its editorial practices but won't fire anyone after Columbia said in its blistering critique of how the story was reported that the magazine's shortcomings "encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking," adding that the article is a "story of journalistic failure that was avoidable."

The Columbia review was undertaken at Rolling Stone's request and posted on both organizations' websites. It presented a broad indictment of the magazine's handling of a story that had horrified readers, unleashed protests at the university's Charlottesville campus and sparked a national discussion about sexual assaults on college campuses.

It came two weeks after the Charlottesville police department said it had found no evidence to back the claims of the victim, identified in the story only as "Jackie," who said she was raped by seven men at a fraternity house.

The article's author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, also apologized in a statement, saying she would not repeat the mistakes she made when writing the article, "A Rape on Campus."

"Reading the Columbia account of the mistakes and misjudgements in my reporting was a brutal and humbling experience," she said.

The magazine's publisher, Jann S. Wenner, however, told The New York Times that Erdely would continue to write for the magazine and that neither her editor nor Dana would be fired.

The university's president issued a statement accusing Rolling Stone of "irresponsible journalism."

Rolling Stone had asked for the independent review after numerous news media outlets found flaws with the story about Jackie, who said the attack happened during a social event at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house more than two years earlier. The article quoted Jackie as saying that the attack was orchestrated by a fraternity member who worked with her at the school's aquatic center.

Soon after the article was published, several news media organizations began finding problems with the account, forcing Rolling Stone to acknowledge on Dec. 5 that there were discrepancies.

Dana and Erdely said they had been too accommodating of requests from Jackie that limited their ability to report the story because she said she was a rape victim and asked them not to contact others to corroborate, the report said.

However, Columbia's report said, Rolling Stone also failed to investigate reporting leads even when Jackie had not specifically asked them not to.

The Columbia report found three major flaws in the magazine's reporting methodology: that Erdely did not try to contact the three friends, instead taking Jackie's word for it that one of them refused to talk; that she failed to give enough details of the alleged assault when she contacted the fraternity for comment, which made it difficult for the organization to investigate; and that Rolling Stone did not try hard enough to find the person Jackie accused of orchestrating the assault.

"The editors made judgments about attribution, fact-checking and verification that greatly increased their risks of error but had little or nothing to do with protecting Jackie's position," it said.

In her statement, U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan said the article hurt efforts to fight sexual violence, tarred the school's reputation, and falsely accused some students "of heinous, criminal acts and falsely depicted others as indifferent to the suffering of their classmate." The story falsely depicted the university as callous toward sexual assault victims, reinforcing their reluctance to come forward, she said.

Nonetheless, the article heightened scrutiny of campus sexual assaults amid a campaign by President Barack Obama. The University of Virginia had already been on the Department of Education's list of 55 colleges under investigation for their handling of sex assault violations. 

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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