Rolling Stone’s UVA Article: Avoidable Journalistic Failure?

In the first week of April, Rolling Stone formally retracted its infamous story about “Jackie,” an undergraduate at the University of Virginia who alleged that she had been brutally raped by members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity while at a party in their house. The story was originally published in November 2014, and almost immediately came under fire for inconsistencies. Fact-checkers from the Washington Post uncovered huge gaps in the story, and interviews with friends and classmates poked more holes in the version of the events told by the Rolling Stone reporter. Finally, the Charlottesville police conducted an independent investigation and concluded that there was no evidence to support the crime described in the Rolling Stone article.

Before issuing the official retraction, Rolling Stone commissioned the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to conduct an independent review of the “Jackie” story. Their report was scathing and completely discredited the story. Citing “avoidable journalistic failure,” the authors recommended that Rolling Stone tighten its procedures around fact-checking. They also suggested that the practice of using pseudonyms such as “Jackie” be banned.


Another recommendation of the report–and the one that may matter most in avoiding future litigation–is that Rolling Stone offer more details about the event to people it is interviewing. For example, when the reporter went to members of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity to question them about “Jackie’s” claims, they contend that she offered so little information that they could not fairly address the accusations. Had they had enough information to even identify the night in question, they argue, they would have been able to show that no party or pledge event took place that night. That would have raised a huge red flag as to the credibility of the story at the outset, and perhaps have led to further in-depth investigation resulting in a decision not to publish it.

Rolling Stone maintains that it was protecting “Jackie” and her confidentiality, and rape and sexual assault victims must be given as much privacy as possible or they may not come forward. But permitting secrecy to surround crucial facts in any investigation–journalistic or criminal–denies the accused of due process. The members of the fraternity and the fraternity itself did not have enough facts to even respond to the allegations against them, a fundamental protection for people accused of crimes. The fraternity is now planning to sue Rolling Stone for defamation and reckless reporting.


When the story first broke, University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan harshly criticized the fraternity, condemned the fraternity culture that lead to such a heinous act and suspended all Greek life on campus until after the winter break. Sullivan’s statements and actions were taken without any attempt to verify the accusations made by “Jackie,” without any attempt to ensure that the Rolling Stone story was accurate, and without waiting for the conclusion of a criminal investigation into the allegations made in the story. Another words, the members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, all Greek life at the University of Virginia, and the University as a whole were denied due process and deemed guilty collectively.

The terrible backlash created by the inauthenticity of “Jackie’s” story highlights the essential role of due process. The tragically high incidence rate of sexual assault on college campuses today has created an environment in which the due process rights of everyone are being ignored in a well-intentioned but badly implemented effort to address the problem. The denial of due process shown by Rolling Stone and their reporter will make it that much harder for survivors of sexual assault to tell their story.


If you have been charged with assault, contact our criminal defense attorneys at Pak & McRae Law, LLC.

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Pak & McRae Law

At Pak and McRae Law, LLC we provide straightforward, sincere criminal defense for local, state, and federal matters. Our team includes a former Assistant District Attorney, so we understand how prosecutors approach cases and will use those insights to benefit your case.

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