The Rolling Stone rape hoax story pulls back the curtain on narrative journalism

Earlier this morning Ed covered some of the train wreck level details of the Columbia report on Rolling Stone’s now debunked University of Virginia gang rape story. The fact that this represents an utter debacle in the annals of “journalism” seems beyond dispute and the failure of the magazine to hold anyone accountable only adds another level of shame to the mess they created for themselves. But there was an additional section of the report which deserves further attention and speaks to a broader tale of failure reaching far beyond this one magazine.

In the opening paragraph, the Columbia report sets the scene for how this all began and there’s an important clue hiding in plain sight. (Emphasis added.)

Last July 8, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, a writer for Rolling Stone, telephoned Emily Renda, a rape survivor working on sexual assault issues as a staff member at the University of Virginia. Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show “what it’s like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture,” according to Erdely’s notes of the conversation.1

Renda told Erdely that many assaults take place during parties where “the goal is to get everyone blackout drunk.” She continued, “There may be a much darker side of this” at some fraternities.

As opposed to doing “opinion journalism” commentary or writing reviews of the latest horrible offering from Britney Spears, this was allegedly a story about news coverage. When we talk about that long suffering tradition and the ostensible goal of reporting, I’d always assumed that there were a few givens. When you are covering an important event such as the horrific crime alleged in their original article, it was my understanding that first the event took place. Then the reporter finds about about it and begins to investigate the details. Next, they develop, fact check and edit the story. Finally, if there is some larger trend or wider story which can be truthfully tied in, more work would be done and the story could be expanded to put it in that context.

What happened here was the exact opposite. This “reporter” began – by her own admission in her notes – with a story that she already wanted to write and a depiction of one portion of American culture she wanted to relay. This was not a case of a reporter finding out that a rape took place and setting out to investigate. This was a reporter who had decided that the “rape culture” (that was her phrase, not mine) existed and began a search to find an example to support her assertion. Who knows how many other colleges she contacted before finding UVA as the ideal hot spot?

This is not reporting. This is what is generally known as a fishing expedition. (An application of the phrase which I find particularly offensive as a fisherman.)

Is it any surprise that this project went so dreadfully far off the rails? Rather than beginning with a finding of facts and drawing a conclusion from the research, Erdely began with the story already written in her mind and sought out an example to fill in the who, what, where and when which would be required to convert this from a biased opinion piece into an article of “news.” This is narrative journalism in action. We can read it in mainstream periodicals and watch it on cable news shows every day of the week. The facts are insignificant and may frequently be kicked to the curb if they stand in the way of the larger story that the “reporter” wants to tell.

What went wrong at Rolling Stone was not a mistake – or even a series of mistakes – by one writer, editor or fact checker. It’s emblematic, as Erdely hoped, but not for the desired reasons. This isn’t a story about a rape culture, but a culture of corruption in the media.

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David Strom 6:41 PM on January 26, 2023