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.