Journalistic Narrative Essays

On Sunday, the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism released an exhaustive report on the Rolling Stone story from last November depicting a brutal gang rape at the University of Virginia. Some of what’s contained in it was already known, both from follow-up reporting in other publications, especially the Washington Post, immediately after the original article appeared, and from the Charlottesville, Virginia, police department’s investigation, which was made public last month. First and most important, the account of the supposed victim—referred to only as “Jackie” by the Rolling Stone reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely—is not at all supported by independent facts. Erdely never located the supposed ringleader of the gang rape—“Drew” in the story, a lifeguard and Phi Kappa Psi fraternity brother—and his existence cannot be established. Erdely never approached the three friends whom Jackie quoted as sounding coldly unsympathetic after she told them about the rape, and all three deny saying the things attributed to them. Records show that Phi Kappa Psi held no social event of the kind Jackie described on the night she said she was raped there. The debacle—for Rolling Stones reporter and editors; for the University of Virginia and Phi Kappa Psi; for rape victims whose willingness to come forward could be checked by this sensationally popular story’s false claims; and for Jackie, whose motives and true experience remain unknown—was already pretty clear by early December, two weeks after the article’s publication, when Will Dana, the magazine’s managing editor, posted a note to readers announcing that “there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.” (The next day, in the face of criticism, Dana revised that language, and added, “These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie.”) By then, Erdely’s active Twitter account had gone dark.

What Rolling Stone did not say outright last December was how profoundly it had misplaced its trust in itself. With a nearly thirteen-thousand-word investigation by Columbia’s Sheila Coronel, Steve Coll (who is a staff writer at this magazine), and Derek Kravitz, that is now a moot point. The report deals a devastating blow to the magazine’s decision-making, from start to finish, in bringing “A Rape on Campus” to millions of readers. In doing so, the report displays the kind of thorough reporting and careful analysis that was lacking at Rolling Stone. (Commissioned, admirably, by Rolling Stone as an independent review with almost no prior constraints, it went up on the magazine’s Web site in its entirety on Sunday night, and a condensed version will be published in the print edition.)

In a footnote, the authors call their report “a work of journalism about a failure of journalism.” Their investigation, like the original article, takes the form of a roughly chronological narrative. It begins with the exploratory phone call Erdely made last July to Emily Renda, a U.V.A. expert on sexual assault, looking for a campus rape case to write about. Long-form narrative nonfiction might be in dire straits financially, but it’s become the default prose genre of our time, and not just in magazine articles and books. Official publications like the findings of the 9/11 Commission and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture now borrow its techniques: the use of characters, scenes, description, and dialogue; the creation of tension through pacing, foreshadowing, and recapitulation; the omniscient narrator whose sources are semi-hidden in order to preserve the elegance of storytelling. This tyranny of narrative is not unrelated to the disaster at Rolling Stone.

Any journalist who works in this form and is being honest will recognize the moments of truth that led to Erdely’s and Rolling Stones undoing. Like most journalists worth reading, she approached the story with a passionate purpose, a sense of injustice, of a wrong that needed to be righted. In Erdely’s case, she wanted to expose the “culture of rape” on college campuses, and she went looking for a case so vivid and gripping that no reader could dismiss it. When Renda told her about Jackie in that first conversation, Erdely found what she was looking for, and she made the decision not to pursue other, less dramatic cases that she learned about. Renda later told the Times that a more ambiguous incident might have seemed “not real enough to stand for rape culture. And that is part of the problem.” Her remark could be applied to narrative journalism as well: extreme, lurid cases are inherently tempting subjects, but they are not the most likely to lead to complex or profound or abidingly true work.

As soon as she heard Jackie’s astonishingly detailed account of the rape—seven men in a dark room, blood-chilling words, a shattered glass coffee table, a bottle used for penetration—Erdely became so invested in it that she never allowed herself to sustain any doubts. Her reasons were both personal and professional, well-intentioned and selfish. Skepticism would have meant more aggressively questioning Jackie, who appeared to be a traumatized victim of a violent attack: the report states that “the editors and Erdely have concluded that their main fault was to be too accommodating of Jackie because she described herself as the survivor of a terrible sexual assault.” But doubt also might have meant losing the whole story, with its riveting, horror-film lede, and the ammunition it contained for thunderous moral condemnation of rape culture at U.V.A.

Once Erdely had her story, she did everything possible not to let it go. She tried to learn the identity of the ringleader, telling Jackie, “I’m not going to use his name in the article, but I have to do my due diligence anyway.” Jackie froze up and offered no help, and then she stopped returning Erdely’s messages. Erdely’s editors—Will Dana, the managing editor, and Sean Woods, the story editor—had been asking her to find the ringleader, but with the article’s closing date coming up, and Jackie gone missing, they decided to abandon their due diligence. Instead, they assigned the ringleader the name Drew, without ever speaking with him. (Dana, according to the report, “said he was not even aware that Rolling Stone did not know the man’s full name and had not confirmed his existence.”)

That concession brought Jackie back on board, as the magazine intended. Why did Rolling Stone give in? It wasn’t just that Erdely and her editors had come to trust Jackie—they had less reason to trust her now than before. It was the utter necessity of keeping Jackie on the hook. With every week invested in the story, with all the time and resources it entailed, they were loath to give up what they thought they had and start again from scratch. If it had to be Jackie or Drew, they would stick with Jackie.

Erdely and the editors have suggested that Rolling Stone had its hands tied by a skittish and traumatized source. The Columbia report finds otherwise. The magazine failed to pursue even the paths that Jackie never told it to avoid. There are many examples, but perhaps the most crucial came when Erdely asked for Jackie’s help in tracking down Alex, Ryan, and Kathryn, the three friends whom Jackie spoke to the night of the supposed rape and who come across, in the story, as cruel. Jackie discouraged Erdely, claiming that Ryan had expressed horror to her at the prospect of speaking to the magazine. (This was false.) “Yet Jackie never requested—then or later—that Rolling Stone refrain from contacting Ryan, Kathryn or Alex independently,” the report goes on. “ ‘I wouldn’t say it was an obligation’ to Jackie, Erdely said later. She worried, instead, that if ‘I work round Jackie, am I going to drive her from the process?’ ” And so Rolling Stone, instead of giving the friends a chance to tell their story, simply accorded them pseudonyms, too—Andrew, Randall, and Cindy.

It’s a thought that any journalist who spends months cultivating an indispensable source will understand: How hard can I afford to push? The relationship, with all its inherent fragilities (“I’ve changed my mind—why should I even talk to you?”), has become central; at such a critical moment, any violation of trust or understanding can be fatal. Rather than discharge an ethical obligation to three people Erdely didn’t know—who had a right to hear what they would be portrayed under pseudonyms as saying and doing, and respond to it—the reporter held Jackie even closer. Erdely told the Columbia team that her editors didn’t push her on this. (Woods insisted that he did, before relenting because he “felt we had enough.”) Since it wasn’t in the narrow interest of her story, as she now conceived it, to do otherwise, Erdely went with the path of least resistance that the magazine obligingly opened for her. Alex, Ryan, and Kathryn all told the Columbia team that they would have spoken to Rolling Stone if contacted; what they had to say would have undermined much of Jackie’s story.

Once Rolling Stone committed itself wholly to Jackie’s version, the magazine took it to the limit. Another critical decision came when the editors debated how to construct a key scene whose only source was Jackie. This is the moment, after the supposed rape, when Jackie tells her three friends about what’s just happened. It’s the beginning of the second phase of the story—when Jackie’s friends and community abandon her for fear of harming their reputations. In a draft, Erdely wrote:

The group looked at each other in a panic. They all knew about Jackie’s date that evening at Phi Kappa Psi, the house looming behind them. “We have got to get her to the hospital,” Randall declared. The other two friends, however, weren’t convinced. “Is that such a good idea?” countered Cindy.… “Her reputation will be shot for the next four years.” Andrew seconded the opinion. The three friends launched into a heated discussion about the social price of reporting Jackie's rape, while Jackie stood behind them, mute in her bloody dress.”

According to the report, Erdely included a boldface note for her editors: “she says—all her POV.” It was a scrupulous move—the writer was letting her editors know that this vivid exchange came entirely from Jackie, a fact that might need to be acknowledged. But the magazine opted for the seamless purity and vividness of the unattributed version. Similarly, when Erdely included in one draft a disclosure that Jackie “refuses to divulge [Drew’s] full name to RS” out of fear, Erdely’s editor, Woods, cut the disclosure, thought about restoring it, then decided to leave it out. One can imagine the impulses competing in the feature editor’s mind—carefulness and transparency on the one hand, the stylistic pleasure of an uninterrupted flow of narrative on the other. It’s a question that comes up in every piece of literary journalism worth the name.

The report’s authors are sympathetic to the dilemma, but not to its outcome: “There is a tension in magazine and narrative editing between crafting a readable story—a story that flows—and providing clear attribution of quotations and facts. It can be clunky and disruptive to write ‘she said’ over and over. There should be room in magazine journalism for diverse narrative voicing—if the underlying reporting is solid.” In other words, Rolling Stones mistake was not to leave out attributions but to use flimsy and easily falsifiable material in the first place. “To live outside the law, you must be honest,” Bob Dylan sang—to raise journalism above the artless presentation of facts, you’d better be damned sure of those facts.

Although the report describes the scandal as “another shock to journalism’s credibility amid head-swiveling change in the media industry,” Rolling Stones failure doesn’t seem to me to be representative of any larger problem in journalism. It isn’t part of a growing pattern of collapsing institutional standards. It isn’t even a case of the reporter’s having fabricated or plagiarized, which are graver wrongs than credulousness, and far harder to fathom. The Columbia report concludes with various recommendations for how Rolling Stone could restore itself to the good graces of journalism by adopting clearer, more stringent rules on pseudonyms, sourcing, and checking, and for how journalists in general should approach the difficult subject of sexual assault. All of them make sense and should be taken to heart. But, as the report makes clear throughout, the sins of Sabrina Rubin Erdely and her editors at Rolling Stone were basic ones. This wasn’t so much a failure of policies and rules as of conscientiousness in individual human beings. It was a collective failure to resist temptations that arise every day in their work. Faced with a series of decisions and turning points, again and again the magazine took the path that would lead toward what could be called a “better” story. For journalists, that’s what makes the scandal the worst kind—unconscionable, and imaginable.

Want to hear about my short-lived career as a teenaged female wrestler? Or how about the time I took my dog to pet Reiki? Perhaps, I can indulge you in the advice an escort gave me on selling myself to strangers online.

Did that get your attention? That’s the point. These articles, as seen on Vice.com, represent the growing trend of personal essays in journalism, which is seeping onto the pages of other news organizations like The New York Times, which is currently running a series called “Couch” that explores the intricacies of therapy through essays written by psychotherapists and patients.

Eve Fairbanks, a contributing editor at The New Republic, addressed this in a recent column for The Washington Post called “How personal essays conquered journalism—and why they can’t cut it.”

In an interview with AJR, she explained that the overuse of personal narratives in journalism could lose an outsider’s view, which is often very necessary in painting an accurate picture of a prominent issue.

“In the course of reporting my piece, some people speculated to me that we’ve gotten a lot more familiar with the first person due to Facebook and blogging,” said Fairbanks.

Personal narratives are the bread and butter at news sites like Vice and “have an eyewitness, citizen-journalism, on-the-ground quality that people like,” according to Fairbanks.

Fairbanks explained that when she got her start at The New Republic, the magazine had a “Diarist” section where editors and freelancers wrote page-long personal reflections on current events. So while the appeal for this style of writing is not novel, Fairbanks believes it is probably growing.

Personal narratives aren’t necessarily detrimental to journalism. Sometimes it’s important for a writer to establish him or herself in an article for the sake of the audience, according to Fairbanks.

“I don’t know how much we lose by inserting ourselves in stories,” said Fairbanks. “My own method has always been to make my presence clear in my reporting. I think we lose something when we write mainly about anecdotes that already happened in our own lives instead of going out and seeking stories.”

Jamie Lee Curtis Taete, Vice’s west coast editor, contacted by AJR, said he did not feel he was qualified to weigh in on narratives in journalism because “the majority is experiential writing and doesn’t really include much actual reporting.”

“I would say I’m more of a ‘blogger’ than a journalist,” he added, in an email.

AJR spent a week combing through Vice to learn more about immersion reporting, which the arts, culture and news website embraces. Here are three examples of first-person narratives you’ll find on Vice:

 

The Embedded Event Feature

Vice frequently covers events from a first-person perspective, including Comic Con. (Screenshot)

Vice features many stories from the perspective of writers who actively participate in and experience an intriguing event. For example, an article by Nick Gazin called “New York Comic Con is the Best Thing in My Life” follows Gazin’s four-day exploits at New York Comic Con, an annual fan convention celebrating all things pop culture. The story includes an interview with a panel of cast members from the animated FOX show “Bob’s Burgers,” a long anecdote from comedian and directorKevin Smith about quitting sugar and many photographs, including one depicting a man dressed in a Ninja Turtle costume signed by the actors from the 2014 film.Organized chronologically, the piece is free-flowing, personal and honest (“I hope you enjoy reading it. If you don’t, you can just look at pictures of people in cool costumes,” Gazin wrote in the article’s introduction) with a word count of 3,368. Vice writers have also told first-person stories of joining a Cosmopolitan Election Day campaign and attending a singles mixer for potheads. Recently, the site published an essay about spending the night patrolling with a Canadian superhero named LightStep, which would also qualify for the next category of Vice narratives.

The Outrageous and the Outlandish

A Vice article featured the efforts of several writers who tried to convince people via an online dating app to buy them stuff, like pizza. (Screenshot)

Many of Vice’s stories are designed to get readers’ attention. This is true of many of the personal essay stories, like one entitled “My Grandma the Poisoner.” The narrative, written by novelist John Reed, dramatically profiles a complicated but allegedly abusive woman. It’s interesting because Vice has several articles like this that aim to grab a reader’s attention before surprising them with a story that taps into something relatable and powerful. A quick scan of Vice’s most popular recent posts shows the success of these articles, with top stories like one that covered a “Hunger Games”-inspired protest in Bangkok and another where various writers trolled the online dating app Grindr and tried to convince the people they were dating to buy them stuff.

Fairbanks explained that these types of stories have value in today’s media landscape.

“It helps the writer stand out [and] claim uniqueness in an era when there are nearly infinite competing voices on blogs offering analysis, creating a crisis of authority,” said Fairbanks. “So your or my analysis of Obama’s presidency might be no more special than anybody else’s pontificating on the Internet, but that person whose grandma is a poisoner is probably one of the few people who can speak to that experience.”

The Heartbreaking Personal Stories

A Vice writer (pictured) shares her personal story of having a miscarriage, and how exercise has helped her cope. (Screenshot)

The most powerful narrative stories come from painful personal experiences—this is the motor behind the first-person narrative movement in journalism. It’s no different at Vice, where you can find many stories of personal struggle, whether that be growing up gay in Communist Romania or suffering a miscarriage. The latter story, by Kate Merry, details going through a miscarriage and the psychological trauma that plagued her. She uses her personal story to open a discussion about the stigma attached to miscarriages and why this still exists. One writer recently disclosed his personal battle with depression after misguidedly obsessing over a Jack Kerouac lifestyle. In the essay, James Nolan, a writer for Vice UK, detailed the influence of the Kerouac novels like “On the Road” and “Five Easy Pieces” had on his life, which he processes as a desire to escape his mental illness.

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