Interview by Adrian O’Hanlon III
Author Hanna Rosin thought she’d booked a timely interview last November when she invited Rolling Stone contributor Sabrina Erdely to join her weekly podcast, which she co-hosts for DoubleX, an online magazine she helped create for Slate. Erdely’s story “A Rape on Campus” graphically detailed a vicious gang rape through the eyes of its alleged victim, a University of Virginia student, given the pseudonym Jackie. To protect her source, Erdely didn’t interview the fraternity members accused in the article of perpetrating the assault, nor did she interview three friends of Jackie’s in whom she had purportedly confided. The published story provoked an ethical firestorm that led to its retraction by the Rolling Stone and an investigation by the Columbia Journalism Review concluding that the author and the magazine failed to engage in “basic, even routine journalistic practice.” But that was six months after Slate’s podcast, which became one of the first media sources to question the article’s veracity. We interviewed Rosin about the podcast. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
What was your plan heading into the Sabrina Erdely interview?
The night before, I read [the story] closely and I noticed a bunch missing. One thing, there wasn’t any sentence saying, ‘We tried to reach [those accused], they didn’t want to answer’ — nothing. There was a name of a fraternity, a person named ‘Drew,’ and then nothing from them. That’s really unusual. The second thing I noticed was the conversation with [Jackie’s] three friends was very damning to them, but there was nothing from them.
Did that change your approach to the interview?
I was in this odd position of doing what is normally a promotional-style interview. … I couldn’t bring myself to be like ‘This is wonderful,’ because I felt so queasy about the story.
Did you go into the interview thinking the story would blow up like it did?
Oh, no, but I was really suspicious of it. I just had a really bad feeling about it.
And did Erdely’s answers help that feeling?
Her answers were terrible —the ones that actually made me more suspicious were not the ones about the reporting [she had done] because I started to realize there must be some deal with Jackie. It was the one about [why she didn't question] the frat: ‘They’re so powerful, they have fathers who work in government.’ That seemed odd to me. That’s the view of the world that can get you in trouble.
So did you give her any warning beforehand? Or did you just get into it?
I didn’t even perceive it as that confrontational. In retrospect, you could see it open the floodgates, but at the time I was trying to be inquisitive.
She slams the book on herself when she says she didn’t know whether [the alleged rape] happened, because she wasn’t in the room. And then, when you ask her if she can prove her case and she says, ‘I’m not a lawyer, I’m a journalist.’
Yeah, what’s with that? You have a huge responsibility here … a journalist has to have proof of a higher standard than a lawyer, who’s being paid to represent his side.
So how do you balance loyalties to the story with loyalties to a source?
In an ideal world, you slowly educate your source to the idea that it is mutually beneficial for the truth to be told. But experience tells me that I have led sources down that path and still, they’re wounded by something in the story. This is what [Erdely] didn’t get. We control the narrative. That’s a very powerful thing. And so if we are controlling the narrative, some people will feel betrayed by that narrative because they didn’t write it themselves.
Is there a simple formula for not breaking that trust and still getting the story?
I follow the rule of transparency—like constantly reminding them that ‘I’m a reporter, this is my job.’ Because it really is a human relationship, and you really are trying to win people’s trust, and so it’s a constant tension. Like ‘trust me, I’m the enemy, trust me, I’m the enemy.’