Saturday, May 28, 2016

something old: Rolling Stone and the temptations of narrative journalism--building too much of a long-form story on a single personal narrative

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.

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