Rolling Stone's UVA rape story backlash: When narratives are so compelling that we don't notice unbalanced reporting

From the UVA exposé to "Serial" to "In Cold Blood," it's hard for us to accept holes in the stories that rivet us

By Erin Keane

Chief Content Officer

Published December 3, 2014 4:09PM (EST)

  (AP/Steve Helber)
(AP/Steve Helber)

I started reading Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s Rolling Stone story “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” expecting another version of a story I’d read, depressingly, so many times before of unresolved sexual assaults on campus. But from the first paragraph, I was hooked on overachieving, finally-able-to-cut-loose Jackie — the way she slyly ditches her spiked drink so she can stay sober but not look like a scared freshman, her excitement over her first big party, what she wore and how she fixed her hair. Erdely brings Jackie right into my living room with me and when she is gang raped in the frat house all of the breath rushes out of my lungs. I gulp the rest of the story down and by the end I am stunned. The searing unfairness of how Jackie has been treated by the people of an institution she trusted, where she could have felt liberated and empowered instead, is simply crushing. Not only am I devastated on her behalf, I’m also devastated on behalf of every girl and woman who’s ever been brutalized like that. That’s what a good story written extremely well should do. That’s art.

That I don’t even notice that Erdely never mentions trying to get an interview with the men Jackie says raped her until I read the follow-up pieces this week speaks volumes about how well Erdely crafted the narrative. Some critics say Erdeley should not have agreed to Jackie’s request that she not contact the men she accused of rape, that journalistic diligence demands that they be given the opportunity to address the accusations or refuse to comment. Others say whistle-blowing stories often start with one source. Rolling Stone stands by Erdely’s reporting in a statement: “Through our extensive reporting and fact-checking, we found Jackie to be entirely credible and courageous, and we are proud to have given her disturbing story the attention it deserves.”

But this isn’t Jackie’s memoir. “A Rape on Campus” is journalism, and now the story isn’t just about Jackie, it’s about the concessions Erdely did or did not make in pursuit of a powerful story, which has now sparked a police investigation, a frat suspension and institutional reforms. The emotional payoff for being invested in Jackie is intense and ongoing. Jackie isn’t a character, she’s a real person. But in the case of how her story was written and read, she had to be a little bit of both in order to transcend campus apocrypha and gain the power to force a tradition-bound institution to face its toxic culture.

I think about this weird and uncomfortable space journalism and entertainment can occupy when I listen to Sarah Koenig’s “Serial" with my husband. I believe Adnan Syed, who says he didn’t kill Hae Min Lee. I can’t give you legally sound reasons why, because I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not reporting the story, I’m just consuming it. At this point in Koenig’s narrative, I simply believe the version of him that her podcast delivers. My husband believes Jay, the star witness for the prosecution. We both have our own capricious reasons that basically boil down to which character we each like more.

I recognize the way we break down the details of the case — it’s just like how we talked about “True Detective” as Season 1's Yellow King mystery played out: the tantalizing clues and what they mean, the frustrating dead-ends, how much to believe from multiple unreliable narrators and why. And I’m not exactly comfortable with my side-picking in “Serial,” because Rust Cohle is fiction but Adnan Syed is a real person, and so is Hae Min Lee, a real person who was murdered 15 years ago. I only know the versions of the story that Koenig tells. But Koenig tells it in such a way that her own meticulous process of reporting, discovery, belief and disbelief is a significant part of the storytelling, cliffhangers and all, so I feel less morbid in being so — I admit it — entertained by this compelling narrative of young lives destroyed by an act of violence. That’s art, too.

And so it’s noteworthy that decades after Truman Capote published “In Cold Blood,” his 1966 nonfiction book that redefined investigative crime reporting with its narrative exploration of the 1959 murders of Holcomb, Kansas, farmer Herbert Clutter and his family, his conclusions are being challenged head-on. Ronald Nye, the son of a Kansas state investigator, is publishing a new account of the case using his late father’s previously unreleased files, and he told the Guardian it will offer a “totally different theory” on the case. “Capote had a fact here, and a fact there, and filled in the gaps with literary license,” said Nye, 64. “But these files show the facts in a line, with a clear landscape on what happened.”

Every ethical reporter believes he or she is showing the facts in a clear landscape, unshadowed by discarded sources, ignored leads or deliberately softened edges. But a “just the facts” approach to an in-depth investigation rarely breaks through the noise to have a real impact. Humans crave story, and the literary elements of storytelling — careful character development, significant detail, pace — demand rigorous and frequent checking in long-form journalism because they have so much power to influence how we read the facts. But if Erdely’s telling of Jackie's experience at UVA, even without the pursuit of the perspective of her alleged rapists, rings true enough to launch a thorough investigation by Charlottesville police, a second chapter — whatever new facts it ends up revealing — will come.

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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In Cold Blood Rolling Stone Serial Truman Capote Uva