Sabrina Rubin Erdely went looking for a story. Often, stories come to journalists – they’re working on something else and they get a tip, or they start exploring something of interest, or a one aspect of a story takes greater prominence. But in this case, Erdely knew exactly what she wanted to write about – a sexual assault on college campus. She wanted an exposé.
I say this not to malign her intention – wanting to write about a legitimate topic in order to inform readers and effect change is a standard practice in journalism and a worthy one. But in light of all that’s happened with her Nov. 19 Rolling Stone story, I wondered if this framing didn’t subconsciously affect her reporting.
After all, the woman whose story is at the center of Erdely’s exposé said in an interview with the Washington Post, “If she had not come to me, I probably would not have gone public about my rape.”
That rape, which Erdely describes in horrific detail, happened two years ago to a girl named Jackie weeks into her freshman year at the University of Virginia, a school chosen because of its genteel southern nature and hard-charging culture. Aside from the rape itself, the most shocking aspect was the callous comments of Jackie’s so-called friends, who dismissed her ordeal and warned her not to say anything lest she become a pariah at school.
Rolling Stone put its faith in Erdely, who made a pact with Jackie that she wouldn’t name her accusers or try to contact them. She was in a tough position – and as a journalist, sided a little too much with those in the advocate community, where she deferred to Jackie’s wishes.
Despite Jackie surrounded by supporters, she seemed unprepared for the fallout. There were times where I wondered why she didn’t have someone by her side while talking to Erdely – some would say this person should be a lawyer – a person who could look at the situation objectively and calm Jackie down.
It’s not surprising that some details of the event are confusing or have turned out to be false – the name of the fraternity, the number of men involved. This was a clearly traumatic crime that happened two years ago. Some details are going to get lost, confused. As to who to blame? Well, like the story itself, there’s no easy answer.
Jackie is very, very clearly affected and it’s not uncommon for those with post-traumatic stress to experience memory loss, blocks, or otherwise extreme reactions. In a Washington Post story on Nov. 28, Erdely reported that Jackie was “very happy” with the article, that she was an “enthusiastic source” and “dying to share her story.” However, as it was revealed that there were discrepancies and lingering questions, and those quoted in the original Rolling Stone piece said that was not the case, Jackie backed away, telling a different Washington Post reporter that she had not asked for the attention, and indeed, had wanted to back out of the story:
Overwhelmed by sitting through interviews with the writer, Jackie said she asked Erdely to be taken out of the article. She said Erdely refused, and Jackie was told that the article would go forward regardless.
Jackie said she finally relented and agreed to participate on the condition that she be able to fact-check her parts in the story, which she said Erdely agreed to.
Erdely was in a tough position, no doubt. She found her golden ticket – what a story – but without Jackie, the entire thing evaporates. What Erdely should have done (note: there has been no reporting, to my knowledge, whether this happened or not), is relay Jackie’s misgivings to her editor(s), where a discussion on how to proceed would occur. As Libby Nelson at Vox noted, however, journalists are often in a bind, and when it comes to dealing with sensitive, personal information, doubly so:
If a journalist were completely honest with a source about what it means to be interviewed for this sort of story, it would go something like this: you are going to tell me about the worst day of your life, because you think there is value in sharing that story with the rest of the world. You need to trust me, but you need to know I am not your friend. I will seem as sympathetic as I can be, but I will also note the exact moment you start crying so I can write about it. I will ask questions that might make you uncomfortable. I will call other people and tell them what you’re saying about them. I will open you up to the judgment of the entire world. And then I will walk away.
And if you aren’t ready to deal with that, you shouldn’t talk to me.
Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana correctly said that the blame should fall on the magazine’s shoulders. Despite what many outside journalism believe, a story isn’t the work of the writers’ themselves, and long, investigative magazine pieces are shaped by their editors. (This is why I’m a fan of acknowledging editors [and designers and other people who worked on a big story] in credits or bylines. Some outlets, like Vox and The New York Times Magazine, do this on a regular basis.) It’s clear from the discrepancies, the nature of the story, and Erdely’s, Jackie’s and Rolling Stone editor Sean Woods’ comments that a piece like this should have had input from editors, at least from an earlier point than what is known to the public. Dana made a series of tweets on Dec. 5 about the magazine’s judgment call, and how they were wrong to not verify Jackie’s account – or question Erdely).
Nelson and Megan McArdle at Bloomberg are correct in that despite Jackie’s youth, Erdely should have made it clear to her what going public on a national scale would entail, and that if she couldn’t handle it, then she couldn’t do it. And by extension, Erdely’s editors would have to make the difficult and heartbreaking choice to not run the story, or at least run a different version of the story, if Jackie wasn’t ready for the full journalistic accounting. It’s not about believing her – it’s clear to me that Erdely and everyone at Rolling Stone, and indeed many at UVA and those who read the story – believe her. It’s about protecting her and her allies and the community of sexual assault victims and their advocates, of making sure that the media isn’t betraying one person for the sake of a good story.
It is hard for anyone who is telling the truth to be faced with accusations they are lying, especially if it’s about a sensitive, personal and traumatic event. No one wants to believe their memories are faulty, that their feelings weren’t real. Erdely, Rolling Stone, the University of Virginia and Jackie herself have all been caught in this maelstrom, with pretty much everyone feeling betrayed.