The journalism cops at Columbia University issued their report on Rolling Stone‘s catastrophic UVA article Sunday night. They cuffed and charged Sabrina Rubin Erdely‘s reporting, Sean Woods‘ and Will Dana‘s editing, and how the magazine fact-checked “A Rape on Campus.” Without contesting those arrests, I want to add another suspect to the lineup: The style in which the story was written.
The story’s omniscient voice placed the reader at the scene of a shocking assault as well as a meeting between the victim and three friends on a Charlottesville street corner. It’s rarely clear in these scenes that everything we’re reading came from a single source Rolling Stone identified only as “Jackie.” Take, for example, this sentence from the story (Rolling Stone has retracted “A Rape on Campus” and removed the article from its website, but you can still read an archived version):
“Greek life is huge at UVA, with nearly one-third of undergrads belonging to a fraternity or sorority, so Jackie fears the backlash could be big – a “shitshow” predicted by her now-former friend Randall, who, citing his loyalty to his own frat, declined to be interviewed.”
“Randall”‘s real name is Ryan Duffin, and Erdely never contacted him, trusting Jackie’s assertion that he didn’t want to participate. (Reporters from the Washington Post and the Associated Press managed to track down Duffin and Jackie’s other friends.)
The report talks about how Erdely’s story wrote around the inconvenience of lacking sources who could confirm Jackie’s account, even though Erdely quoted them anyway:
There is a tension in magazine and narrative editing between crafting a readable story – a story that flows – and providing clear attribution of quotations and facts. It can be clunky and disruptive to write “she said” over and over. There should be room in magazine journalism for diverse narrative voicing — if the underlying reporting is solid. But the most egregious failures of transparency in “A Rape on Campus” cannot be chalked up to writing style. They obfuscated important problems with the story’s reporting.
Rolling Stone‘s anti-clunk strategy, though, directly reflected a more basic problem with the story: The article’s fealty to narrative was more important than its commitment to reporting. Erdely “knew she wanted to write about sexual assaults at an elite university” and interviewed people at several institutions, including Harvard and Yale, but “None of those schools felt quite right,” Paul Farhi reported in November, before the story fell apart. Dana, Rolling Stone‘s managing editor, told the authors of Columbia’s report he originally wanted a reporter to look at an instance of campus assault and “have the story be more about the process of what happens when an assault is reported and the sort of issues it brings up.”
So the parameters of the story Erdely set out to tell were essentially set before the first phone call was made. Jacqui Banaszynski, who won a Pulitzer for her longform reporting and is the Knight Chair professor of journalism at the University of Missouri, used the term “microjournalism” to describe Erdely’s decision to use Jackie as an emblem–a time-honored journalistic path of telling a big story through one person’s experience.
“It’s the most powerful kind of journalism there is, but it’s very risky,” Banaszynski says. “It’s really tempting when you have a story that’s this damn good to go with it, but I think you have to write the story with the info you have.”
And wow, was the opening of Erdely’s story powerful; it was, in fact, horrifyingly cinematic. She describes the physical motion of the attack Jackie remembered, with pieces of glass “digging into her back” as one person knelt on her hair, another was on top of her, and yet another said, “Grab its motherfucking leg.”
“It’s highly graphic, and it picks up all of the most horrific details of this woman’s terrible trauma that it totally it blinded me to any kind of slightly cooler overview of the problem,” says Roy Peter Clark, who teaches writing at the Poynter Institute (where I used to work). “All it did was just make me angry. Maybe that’s all it was supposed to do.”
In fact, the scene sends numerous signals to readers that it contains real reporting. The quotes. The color of Jackie’s dress. The smell of her attackers. Check out this paragraph, which describes Jackie leaving the scene of her assault:
When Jackie came to, she was alone. It was after 3 a.m. She painfully rose from the floor and ran shoeless from the room. She emerged to discover the Phi Psi party still surreally under way, but if anyone noticed the barefoot, disheveled girl hurrying down a side staircase, face beaten, dress spattered with blood, they said nothing. Disoriented, Jackie burst out a side door, realized she was lost, and dialed a friend, screaming, “Something bad happened. I need you to come and find me!” Minutes later, her three best friends on campus – two boys and a girl (whose names are changed) – arrived to find Jackie on a nearby street corner, shaking. “What did they do to you? What did they make you do?” Jackie recalls her friend Randall demanding. Jackie shook her head and began to cry. The group looked at one another in a panic. They all knew about Jackie’s date; the Phi Kappa Psi house loomed behind them. “We have to get her to the hospital,” Randall said.
Does that read like it was shakily reported? “The convention of direct quote marks to me is a signal to readers,” Banaszynski says. Standard journalism practice would have been to find Jackie’s friends and ask them to verify her account. Erdely’s muscular, urgent prose offers few clues that she failed to do so. It’s the language of documentary applied to a dramatization, the kind of thing you tolerate in a film “inspired by a true story” but don’t exactly expect from journalists.
Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow won a Pulitzer last year for a series of articles about living on food stamps. His pieces rely on narrative and scenes packed with details. “I think that reconstructing scene is a useful kind of journalism, an important kind of journalism,” he says. But: “If it’s not real, that’s pretty disastrous. The best way I’ve learned to figure a way out of that is by being there to see everything happen.”
Obviously, Erdely couldn’t have witnessed the events she described in such detail. Saslow says he’s working on a story now where he is in a similar position: “There are a lot sentences that are like, he remembers it this way. I sort of hate those sentences–they don’t feel as clean as I’d like them to feel,” he says. “I’d rather have a piece with that shortcoming than be in any way suspicious of where things are coming from.”
When it comes to attribution, “There are ways around the clunk,” Banaszynski says. Many people who aspire to narrative writing “resist that point high in the story where you have to say where you got the story–let’s call it the formulaic nut graph, but that is a signal that this is why you can trust this.”
“If people think their stories are going to be ruined by attribution, this probably isn’t the right thing to be doing,” Saslow says. Adding signals that you aren’t omniscient is “such a small thing in these big complicated stories.”
And it’s not as if Erdely is the first Rolling Stone writer to write beyond what she knew. As Erik Wemple pointed out last year, a 2013 Alexander Zaitchik profile of Barrett Brown opened with a scene the reporter did not witness, written in a way that suggests he was there. “One can imagine the impulses competing in the feature editor’s mind—carefulness and transparency on the one hand, the stylistic pleasure of an uninterrupted flow of narrative on the other,” George Packer wrote in an essay about Erdely’s story Monday. “It’s a question that comes up in every piece of literary journalism worth the name.”
In 2001 Clark (who wrote about Erdely’s “graphic” language last December) published an essay called “The Line Between Fact and Fiction” about potential problems with narrative journalism and creative nonfiction. “In a culture of media bravado,” he wrote, “there is plenty of room for a little strategic humility.”
But there was no room for humility in Rolling Stone‘s story, which was designed like a missile aimed at inadequate university responses to assault. It was “bad journalism in pursuit of a higher purpose,” as Jill Geisler told CJR.
The writing style of Erdely’s story “attaches” to Rolling Stone‘s overall failure, Banaszynski says, though she says, “I think this was more a failure of the editing process and the reporting process, because those things have to lead the writing process.”
Banasynski offered an example of a long article that opened with a scene the authors had not witnessed, that told a story that deepened as it went: Columbia’s report on Rolling Stone‘s story. “One of the interesting things was the Columbia report read as a dramatic narrative,” she said. “And yet I always knew where the information was coming from.”