By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Columbia University review of a now-discredited Rolling Stone story about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity is due out on Sunday, addressing the questions of journalistic ethics raised by the provocative article.
Rolling Stone commissioned the review after backtracking on the story, "A Rape on Campus," which caused an uproar over the issue of campus sexual assault when it was published in November. But discrepancies in the story soon surfaced, and the magazine was forced to retract it.
The story's autopsy could lead to a shakeup at Rolling Stone, founded in 1967 by editor Jann Wenner. The magazine, best known for its pop music coverage, was a pioneer in the "New Journalism" of the 1960s and '70s, an approach characterized by a reporter's immersion in the subject matter.
If the report is highly critical, it "will have an enormous impact on Rolling Stone. It's going to affect the credibility of Rolling Stone going forward, period," said Stuart Benjamin, a Duke University Law School professor.
Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism will release its report at 8 p.m. on Sunday, with a news conference at 12 p.m. on Monday. Dean Steve Coll, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, headed the review.
The findings will appear on Rolling Stone's website, RollingStone.com, and the website of the Columbia Journalism Review, cjr.org.
The 9,000-word article described a Sept. 28, 2012, gang rape of a University of Virginia first-year student, identified by her real first name, Jackie, allegedly during a pledge party at Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.
The article written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely accused the Charlottesville school, the 21,000-student flagship of the Virginia state university system, of tolerating a culture that ignored sexual violence against women. It raised deep concern and national soul-searching about sexual assault at U.S. campuses in general.
After its publication, the school suspended fraternity and sorority activities and enacted more safety measures, and Governor Terry McAuliffe urged a review of policies at the school.
But Phi Kappa Psi rebutted key parts of the article, and the Washington Post reported that Rolling Stone had not checked out the rape claim with any of the accused. In December, Rolling Stone apologized, citing "discrepancies" in Jackie's account.
Charlottesville police said last month they had found no evidence to back up the story, citing numerous inconsistencies. Jackie declined to give police a statement or answer their questions.
Benjamin, the Duke law professor, said it was doubtful Rolling Stone would face any lawsuit for libel since no one had been identified by name as an attacker.
Fraternities and sororities, social clubs at many U.S. colleges, often have their own housing and are known as the Greek system.
As a public entity, the university is barred from suing. Both the campus chapter and national organization of Phi Kappa Psi also could be too large as groups to claim libel damages, he said.
A suit by Phi Kappa Psi could lead to a potentially damaging "fishing expedition" by lawyers into the fraternity. Rolling Stone's reputation also is likely to be damaged anyway if the Columbia review is damning, he said.
But Bruce Sanford, a Washington media lawyer with the firm of BakerHostetler, said hefty settlements arising from false accusations of rape against Duke lacrosse players in 2006 showed that the fraternity could potentially file a lawsuit.
"The parallels are clear enough that they should worry Rolling Stone considerably, if they're not worried already," he said.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Frank McGurty and Gunna Dickson)