Rolling Stone and the Backlash Against Advocacy Journalism

It’s the tenor of the media punching show that got to me. I’m saddened that a story about sexual assault went awry—of course I am. But the very fact that I’ve had to slip in this caveat to demonstrate my journalistic bona fides also angers me. I keep wondering why the spectacle of a female writer being publicly pilloried for making mistakes doesn’t anger more of us.

Before I read Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” last November by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, I read several opinion pieces about it. “The Missing Men,” by Allison Benedikt and Hanna Rosin, certainly hooked me with its blurb of “Why didn’t a Rolling Stone writer talk to the alleged perpetrators of a gang rape at the University of Virginia?” From the tone and content of such articles, I assumed the whole piece was a narrative from the point of view of Jackie, the alleged victim.

In fact, the now-retracted article was not just Jackie’s story, though a reader would have gotten that impression if they hadn’t read the entire 9,000-word feature. Once I did, I suspected a backlash.

I still do, even after Rolling Stone has been investigated by the Columbia Journalism Review, and the CJR’s report this April on “What Went Wrong?” now appears in place of the original article on the RS site. All the messy guts of this magazine sausage have been spilled for pundits to pick through, and Rolling Stone was right to provide a look inside. This kind of transparency is refreshing, if only because most readers have no idea what goes into editing a long magazine feature. More than anything, though, the problems that surfaced indicate just how tricky narrative journalism can be.

Rolling Stone has rightly been criticized for opening the exposé with the dramatic narrative of Jackie’s travails. Not long after the article was published, it became clear that Erdely and the magazine had lost faith in their version of Jackie’s story—and an apology from RS editor Will Dana prefaced the article online until it was retracted. The piece should have provided a context for the story and corroborated key facts, especially the responses of three of Jackie’s friends.

And yet, commentators ran roughshod over a writer who failed to question where her own attitudes were taking her but didn’t conjure stuff out of whole cloth. Through it all, I’ve been disheartened by the lack of empathy shown for whatever happened to Jackie, the young woman at the center of the story. The commentary of other journalists has been defensive, as if an emotional response to this topic is wrong in some absolute sense. Worse, sites like are now worrying that after Rolling Stone has gotten a wrist-slapping, “the war against campus sexual assault” will return.

From the start, I read “A Rape on Campus” as a work of advocacy journalism. It included quotes from other UVA students, victims’ rights advocates, scholarly studies, and the president of the university. It wove in historical background on campus culture and fraternities—even damning lyrics from “Rugby Road,” a decades-old college song that was banned at football games in 2010, Erdely reported, but that is “still performed on campus by UVA’s oldest a cappella group, the Virginia Gentlemen.” (“He’ll take you to his fraternity house and fill you full of beer, and soon you’ll be the mother of a bastard Cavalier!”) She inserted her own observations of walking along the actual Rugby Road on a Friday night with several student guides:

“The women rattle off which one is known as the ‘roofie frat,’ where supposedly four girls have been drugged and raped, and at which house a friend had a recent ‘bad experience,’ the Wahoo [UVA student] euphemism for sexual assault.”

By this point, many feminist writers have apologized for leaping in early to support the Rolling Stone account. But I’m sick of the mea culpas, as if a traumatized young woman’s inconsistent story proves that all rape victims have faulty memories or even lie.

The backlash against this article has been fueled by more than the public’s supposed hunger for journalistic integrity. In “Feminism Can Handle the Truth,” a commentary last December by Judith Levine in Boston Review, she rips into supporters of the Rolling Stone story by opining that “[i]f their goal is to lock up campus rapists, mainstream feminists are winning.” Never mind that it’s not obvious what a “mainstream feminist” is or why locking up rapists would be a bad goal; Levine focuses on “girl-on-girl cannibalism,” as if the real problem is politically correct feminists going on the defensive against any female writers who disagree. Sure, it’s a problem, especially in the hothouse of Twitter rants and blogs, but that’s minor compared to the media bias against women on display everywhere in the discussion of Jackie’s rape story.

The current breast-beating, by both male and female journalists, about the hallowed goal of objectivity is like a bunch of people shouting, “The world is flat!” as they stare at a curving horizon. They’re in denial. The social media melee over the Rolling Stone story—aka the “journalistic train wreck” or the “great campus rape hoax” or the “shitstorm”—has generated the depressing spectacle of a crowd of reporters scrambling to prove what good journalists they are, proclaiming they’d never be so naïve or dumb or cavalier with the facts and insisting there are clear-cut journalistic rules for investigative muckraking. It would be laughable if the topic wasn’t so serious.

During the same period as the Rolling Stone pile-on last December, for instance, the New York Times, among many other media outlets, reported that Pope Francis had declared, while comforting a boy who’d lost his pet, that animals go to heaven. This about face in Catholic doctrine delighted Humane Society chapters and vegans around the world, but as it turned out, the pope didn’t say it and there was no bereaved child. As the NYT’s correction notes, “The Times should have verified the quotations with the Vatican.”

scales of justice
Image by Michael Coghlan from Blogtrepreneur.

Granted, potentially criminal (and defamatory) charges in print are far more of an ethical problem than fake quotes from the pope. Yet, the online bashing of Rolling Stone reeks of both evangelical fury and the desperation of journalists who have lost their professional role. In “When Reporters Value ‘Justice’ over Accuracy, Journalism Loses,” Jeff Jacoby, the Boston Globe’s conservative columnist, sententiously asks, “Has the time come to give up on the ideal of objective, unbiased journalism? Would media bias openly acknowledged be an improvement over news media that only pretend not to take sides?”

Well, yes, actually. I’ve believed that for thirty years, although I doubt Jacoby’s rhetorical questions were meant for a feminist journalist like me. Not so long ago, there were very few female editors or writers at major newspapers and magazines. The annual VIDA count shows only marginal improvements. But beyond the lack of female bylines, there’s the millenia-old tradition of viewing women as second-class citizens (or chattel). Feminist critics—from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Gloria Steinem to Caryl Rivers to Susan Faludi to young women currently on college campuses like UVA—have long argued that the patriarchy controls the way women are depicted, silencing their stories.

As a journalist, I value facts, and I’ve never been crazy about narrative reconstructions in magazine features. That would have been a red flag for me as an editor simply because the use of fictional techniques in nonfiction stories quickly immerses readers in a dramatic tale regardless of facts. But while Jackie’s story was a key focus point in Erdely’s feature, her article also referenced many other sources. The CJR analysis discusses the problem for this reporter of “confirmation bias”—seeing what you believe you’re going to see—but as a reader, I felt that Erdely made her advocacy clear in the original piece.

In “Is the Rolling Stone Story True?,” an early blog post that kicked off much of the furor, Editor-in-Chief Richard Bradley of Worth likens Erdely’s account to the fabrications of Stephen Glass in the mid-nineties—partly because, Bradley admits, he’d been taken in by Glass while editing him at George magazine. Glass, a former wonder boy at many top journals such as the New Republic and Harper’s, is now one of the leading flimflammers in the walk of journalistic shame (along with Jonah Lehrer, Jayson Blair, and Janet Cooke). But as Buzz Bissinger details in “Shattered Glass,” his 1998 Vanity Fair investigative feature:

“Glass created fake letterheads, memos, faxes, and phone numbers; he presented fake handwritten notes, fake typed notes from imaginary events written with intentional misspellings, fake diagrams of who sat where at meetings that never transpired, fake voice mails from fake sources. He even inserted fake mistakes into his fake stories so fact checkers would catch them and feel as if they were doing their jobs.”

There’s no question that journalists need to be skeptical of the stories sources tell, and that editors must watch out for writers who fictionalize. But comparing Erdely’s handling of Jackie to Stephen Glass’s falsifications is unfair. He intentionally faked notes and sources, clearly knowing what magazine editors would be looking for as they corroborated a reconstructed narrative. In the case of the Rolling Stone UVA story, Jackie is a real person who may well have experienced a real trauma. Some of Erdely’s mistaken assumptions were based on the fact that others on campus believed her, too.

Call what happened careless, stupid, the result of the continual degeneration of journalistic standards. You could also call it an act of good faith in reporting on a complex, hot-button topic. As Dana of Rolling Stone noted in the magazine’s earlier apology to readers, “In trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault, we made a judgment—the kind of judgment reporters and editors make every day.”

I suspect that Erdely herself responded to her source’s emotional pain. It’s still not clear why Jackie fabricated so much, but it’s not a stretch for me to believe that the story of a terrible night could be reshaped in memory by a shocked girl who felt ashamed, vulnerable, and outraged. Even the thorough report from CJR doesn’t discuss how much a feature like this depends on the Rashomon-like stories people tell about an event. Think about how you might smooth off contradictory edges in your own stories to explain what you did—and think about the strong feelings that craft your memories.

Journalists aren’t only cynical skeptics. If they care deeply about their work, they report by instinct and gut, too. They make mistakes all the time; they must constantly grapple with their own biases and how to counter those biases in print. Regardless, the quick leap to crying “hoax” with this story says more about the continuing bias against women in the media than it does about the truth.


This piece has been adapted from an earlier article that appeared as “The Backlash” in Women Equal Books (WRB’s blog), December 2014.


Martha Nichols (1)Martha Nichols is editor in chief of Talking Writing, a digital literary magazine and nonprofit organization based in the Boston area. She’s a contributing editor at Women’s Review of Books and teaches in the journalism program at the Harvard University Extension School.