Rolling Stone's Sensational Failure

If Sabrina Erdely set out to find a story that was emblematic of rape on college campuses, why did she focus on an allegation that would've been unrepresentative even if true?

What went wrong in Rolling Stone's feature on rape at the University of Virginia? Many things, Columbia's journalism school reports in its post-mortem, a valuable document focused on journalistic steps that would've prevented the errors.

Press critic Jay Rosen has a sharp addendum to that report, focusing on how a debacle of this magnitude could've happened. The most consequential decision that the magazine made was "to settle on a narrative and go in search of the story that would work just right," he argues, citing several pieces of evidence for his thesis.

The magazine's managing editor told The New York Times last December that "the article stemmed from a feeling he and other senior editors had over [the] summer that the issue of unpunished campus rapes would make a compelling and important story." The author of the article, Sabrina Erdely, mentioned in the reporting notes she turned over to Rolling Stone that "she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case," the Columbia post-mortem reports, one 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.”

The Washington Post reported:

So, for six weeks ... Erdely interviewed students from across the country. She talked to people at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. None of those schools felt quite right. But one did: the University of Virginia, a public school, Southern and genteel, brimming with what Erdely calls “super-smart kids” and steeped in the legacy of its founder, Thomas Jefferson.

Said Rosen, "None of those schools felt quite right. What kind of 'feel' is this? It’s feeling for a fit between discovered story and a prior—given—narrative." What if, he argued, "a single, emblematic college rape case" does not exist? "Maybe the hunt for such was ill-conceived from the start," he wrote. "Maybe that’s the wrong way for Rolling Stone to have begun." And I think he is correct that searching for confirmation of a preexisting narrative is a common problem in narrative journalism generally and a factor that led Rolling Stone astray here.

Still, there is one sense in which Erdely's account of her process seems dubious to me. The story of a fraternity that used gang rape as an initiation ritual for pledges would obviously be worth exposing if it were true. But no one familiar with the reality of rape on college campuses should've construed such a story as emblematic of the problem. Gang rapes absolutely happen. As Robby Soave notes, Rolling Stone could've easily written a story about one that happened at Vanderbilt.

But according to the Justice Department's December 2014 report on the rape and sexual assault of college-aged females, fully 95 percent of rapes and sexual assaults are committed by a single perpetrator. Just 5 percent involve two or more perpetrators—and a fraction of those, if any, involve premeditated, institutionalized rape carried out as part of a formal, ostensibly recurring initiation rite. There's nothing objectionable about a journalist highlighting a highly atypical rape so long as the specific incident actually happened. But any journalist doing so should acknowledge that they're telling the story of a sensational, unrepresentative case, not a case emblematic of campus culture at large.

As for the University of Virginia "feeling right" as a setting, as opposed to elite schools in other regions, it's also worth noting that, per the same Justice Department report, the rate of rape and sexual assault of college-aged women is highest in the Midwest (at 8.3 victims per 1,000 females aged 18-to-24), next highest in the West (5.9 victims per 1,000 females), next highest in the Northeast (5.2 victims per 1,000 females) and lowest in the South (4.7 victims per 1,000 females). Statistics around rape are notoriously difficult to assess and subject to reporting bias, but those numbers are based on the National Crime Victimization Survey, not institutional reporting, and most likely outperform gut feeling.

Had the account of gang rape been less sensational and more emblematic of sexual assault as it typically plays out on college campuses, Erdely almost certainly wouldn't have worked so hard to stick with the story even as her source stopped cooperating for long periods and failed to corroborate important details. She was wedded to her source in part because she was one-of-a-kind. And the original story that Rolling Stone published was sensational in form: It focused at length on the gang rape scene, using graphic details and narrative construction to play up its brutality, even as other parts of the story proceeded as if the article's intent was to convey the reality of campus culture at UVA (if not everywhere).

The narrative core and purported purpose of the story did not match.

Journalists are constantly tempted to tell sensational, unrepresentative stories as if they're emblematic of a person, an institution, or a culture. They best avoid misleading readers by acknowledging the ways in which their story is unusual. While the falseness of Erdely's article has understandably overshadowed all other questions, confusion about the distinction between what is sensational and what is emblematic played a part in her journalistic malpractice and would've been a weakness in Rolling Stone's story even if the gang rape it portrayed had happened.