By Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Erdely’s own admission, she chose to write about "Jackie’s" alleged 2012 gang raping because the University of Virginia fulfilled some preconceived requirements.
“I was looking to set this story at a university that had a good reputation, but also felt very representative of what was going on at American colleges across the country with regard to sexual assault,” Erdely said in November. “I was also hoping that it would be a college that was under Title IX investigation, and on top of that, a place where people were willing to talk to me about their sexual assault experiences. And I found all that at University of Virginia.”
In other words, Jackie and U.Va. fit a concept that Erdely believed was true and, as a self-described “narrative journalist,” Erdely wanted to tell the story from her perspective. Jackie would be the story’s vehicle.
Media critics believe that was what led to the downfall of Erdely, whose story, “A Rape on Campus,” has almost entirely collapsed following reports that Jackie’s account in the piece doesn’t stack up to certain fact-checks.
“That’s absolutely my interpretation of it,” David Sumner, a journalism professor at Ball State University and author of The Magazine Century: American Magazines since 1900, told the Washington Examiner. “Erdely and Rolling Stone had a politically correct narrative they wanted to impose and they published it whether or not the facts fit their narrative.”
Sumner likened Rolling Stone’s article to the 2006 Duke Lacrosse rape scandal, which turned out to be a hoax. “They didn’t learn from history, so they repeated it.”
Erdely’s story has not been entirely debunked. But the fraternity of the men who allegedly initiated the gang-rape has denied it hosted a house party the night Jackie claimed. Several of Jackie’s friends also voiced skepticism of Jackie’s version of events after the article was published. And the man who Jackie claimed initiated the rape did not belong to the fraternity she said he did.
Erdely admitted in another interview she and her editors had struck a deal with Jackie not to reach out to the alleged rapists for the purpose of the story.
The unfolding discrepancies led Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana to amend the story with a note on Friday (which has since been revised a few times). “We should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story,” it said. “These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie. We apologize to anyone who was affected by the story and we will continue to investigate the events of that evening.”
Aside from the facts coming into dispute, some journalism experts believe Erdely’s writing style — the highly dramatic and graphic imagery and dialogue — is also questionable.
“It's a style that requires you to work a little harder to bring in multiple view points,” said Lucy Dalglish, the dean of University of Maryland’s journalism program. “It's easier to do in less risky stories. In other words, when you're not accusing somebody of a crime.”
Identities of the key players in Erdely’s story are obscured (though Jackie is supposedly a real nickname). Dalglish said it’s possible Rolling Stone thought the anonymity would lend cover from scrutiny. “Sometimes people think, ‘Well, all I have to do is be squishy about it. If we just mask the identities of all these people, we'll be ok,’ ” she said. “That's just not enough.”
Janet Steele, a journalism professor at George Washington University who teaches a class on narrative writing, echoed the sentiment. “Narrative journalism has to be good journalism,” she said. “I'm pretty horrified by the type of editing that passed at the Rolling Stone.”
Though Jackie’s account of events from the alleged incident have proven, at the least, spotty, the Washington Post reported that her close friends still believe something traumatic happened to her.
Katherine Reed, who teaches a class on reporting traumatic events at the University of Missouri, said “one thing you know about someone who suffered a trauma is that they're not always the most reliable narrators.” Victims's recollection of traumatic events, she said, are often imperfect.
Reed said it was necessary for Rolling Stone and Erdely to get an “ironclad” rape account that would hold up to intense public criticism and skepticism. That would have required being able to corroborate Jackie’s account with other witnesses and the details about the incident. Much of this was botched, Reed said. “Any good long-form magazine journalist would not have neglected the due diligence that you would do to decide whether that story can withstand all the scrutiny.”
Much of Erdely’s piece is devoted to a “culture” at U.Va. as well as other schools that don’t treat rape claims as a serious issue worth addressing.
“There's other really good reporting in that piece that's now of no value to anybody because the credibility has been so undermined,” Reed said.