Over the last few weeks, Philadelphia-based investigative reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely has received international attention for her Rolling Stone article "A Rape on Campus," telling of the gang rape of a student, identified only as "Jackie," at a fraternity party at the University of Virginia.
On Friday, after a series of news reports questioned Erdely's work, Rolling Stone issued an apology citing unspecified discrepancies in the story.
"Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie's story," the magazine's managing editor, Will Dana, wrote, "we decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her, nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack, for fear of retaliation against her. ...
"There now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced," the statement read.
Later, on Twitter, Dana said Rolling Stone either should not have honored the request or should have tried "to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story."
The magazine's reversal came after the fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, suspended its operations on campus, and Charlottesville police opened an investigation into the claims.
For former editors and colleagues of Erdely, a University of Pennsylvania alumna who cut her teeth at Philadelphia Magazine in the 1990s, the backlash provoked immediate skepticism.
"She's one of the most thorough reporters I've ever worked with," said Eliot Kaplan, who hired Erdely at Philadelphia Magazine in 1994. "She's not a shortcut-taker - very precise, diligent."
Kaplan, now vice president of talent acquisition at Hearst Magazines, recalled that Erdely wrote a number of true-crime stories for him, including one about an obstetrician who molested his patients, and another about a professor's affair with a student.
Later, at Self magazine, Erdely was the go-to reporter for sensitive issues, according to Sara Austin, her editor there.
"She's hands-down one of the best and smartest journalists I've ever worked with," said Austin, now a senior deputy editor at Cosmopolitan. "She did incredible work for us on very complicated investigations, dealing with people who had often been through illness or trauma or both."
Rolling Stone has not detailed what conversations editors and fact-checkers had about the investigation, though Dana said in his statement that the magazine was "trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault."
Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, described the source-reporter relationship as a delicate negotiation. "And now, the failure to do that has had the unfortunate effect of pulling the rug out from under a story, and that's a terrible thing, because this is a story people need to pay attention to.
"It's always a problem when you can't name people in a story, and the more people you can't name, the more of a problem it is. . . . I think that caused the backlash of skepticism."
Erdely and Dana did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
Fact-checking victims' stories inevitably turns up issues, Austin said.
"Having long experience editing stories about people having been through great trauma, whether it's an assault or an illness, it's almost a rule that there are discrepancies," she said. "Fact-checking is part of the process in order to catch those discrepancies."
In this case, the discrepancies unearthed in follow-up stories by the Washington Post and others include that there was no party at the fraternity on the date mentioned in the article; that no member of the fraternity had worked at the campus pool where the victim met her alleged attacker; and that one alleged attacker identified by Jackie to friends was not a member of the fraternity. The newspaper also reported that Jackie asked to be taken out of the story at one point, but Erdely refused.
Lisa DePaulo, a former colleague of Erdely's at Philadelphia Magazine and a writer at Bloomberg Politics, was incredulous about the attacks on Erdely's reporting. "As far as I know, there's never been a piece of hers that was sloppy," she said. "She's an absolute pro."
She said she hoped that the truth would emerge - and that it would not drown out the voices of other victims.
"It's just a really bad thing for women. When other women come forward, this case is going to be brought up - and it's going to go into that same category of false claims," DePaulo said. "That's really bad for women who are sexually assaulted."