The importance of research…and pitfalls for the unwary

Image retrieved from www.essaylab.org

Image retrieved from http://www.essaylab.org

I recently had to complete an assignment on the subject of the importance of research for writers.  Two examples that we were asked to consider were those of an article published by Rolling Stone magazine last year, titled A Rape on Campus, and the 2009 novel The Trowenna Sea by respected New Zealand author Witi Ihimaera.  At first glance, one might think the two instances are very different.  However, on closer analysis, it seems that both authors were driven by the same motive – to tell a good story. And in this they both succeeded, albeit by different means and for different reasons.

The Rolling Stone journalist, Sabrina Erdely, set out to write an article about a rape on a prestigious US university campus – that was her goal. Her previous work had included a number of articles about sexual abuse and rape, a subject about which she clearly feels passionate and she seems fated to have come across the supposed victim of a gang rape by seven ‘frat boys’ at the University of Virginia. At least one source that I have found states that ‘Jackie’ (the name Erdley gave the victim) may have devised the rape story as a way of ensnaring a male friend into a romantic relationship. Erdely broke the basic rule of journalism by failing to verify her sources and interview all parties, including the alleged rapists. The article was later discredited and withdrawn by Rolling Stone, who commissioned an independent review by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism which labelled A Rape on Campus as ‘the worst piece of journalism of 2014’.

Rolling Stone Magazine's story, 'A Rape on Campus' was published in December 2014. Photo: Lisa Overton/NewsHour Weekend retrieved from www.pbs.org

Rolling Stone Magazine’s story, ‘A Rape on Campus’ was published in December 2014. Photo: Lisa Overton/NewsHour Weekend retrieved from http://www.pbs.org

In the case of Ihimaera’s book, the author was accused of plagiarism after a journalist writing for the NZ Listener magazine googled passages from the book and found that some matched the work of other writers.  It seems, from a Sunday Star Times interview with him on www.Stuff.co.nz, that he made the mistake of deciding to use unchanged passages of others’ work in his narrative because  “One of the issues was I could easily substitute word for word, those words, and that way cover up what they were and nobody would know. But as I thought about that, I thought, `no, I really loved the way people were saying these things, and if I do that, am I really solving the problem?” 

Witi Ihimaera Photo: Lawrence Smith, retrieved from http://www.stuff.co.nz/sunday-star-times

Witi Ihimaera
Photo: Lawrence Smith, retrieved from http://www.stuff.co.nz/sunday-star-times

Ihimaera also admits that the mistake amounted to ‘a diminution of my own standards as a researcher.’  

Shortly after the plagiarism was revealed, the author received a $50,000 Arts Foundation Laureate award, which he voluntarily offered to return. His offer was refused, signifying the high regard in which he was still held in NZ literary circles.  
Ihimaera states that 0.8% of the work in The Trowenna Sea was unattributed. In contrast, it seems that the main event upon which Erdely built her article was fabricated.

To give Erdely her due, she may not have known that ‘Jackie’ had invented the rape, but she must surely have suspected that certain facts did not ring true. The crazy thing is that, having read the full, original Rolling Stone article, I believe that Erdely would have had a good story even without ‘Jackie’s’ case. Another student mentioned in the article, Emily Renda, was also a rape survivor (though apparently that, too, is now in question) and talked to Erdely. The UVA was, at the time the article went to press, one of 86 colleges under federal investigation and one of only 12 singled out for a compliance review by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. A strong narrative could have been built on these facts.

Sabrina Erdely Photo: www.sabrinaerdely.com

Sabrina Erdely
Photo: http://www.sabrinaerdely.com

Ultimately, both A Rape on Campus and The Trowenna Sea received far greater attention than they might otherwise have done because of the controversy surrounding them.  Erdely’s article succeeded, in that it brought the issue of rape culture at American colleges and universities into the spotlight.  

Although my personal belief is that Ihimaera’s motives for failing to credit the plagiarized passages in his book were mistaken, I don’t think he had any specific agenda. Had I been one of the authors whose work he had failed to credit in The Trowenna Sea, however, I would have been annoyed that he, as an acclaimed author (he wrote The Whale Rider), was passing off my work as his own.

Conversely, I believe that Erdely had a quite specific agenda and manipulated (partially by omission) facts – and possibly people – to suit her planned article.  She has apparently taught journalism, so surely she should have known better? Rolling Stone magazine says it will continue to work with her, which I find strange. How will readers react to future articles written by her?  According to her Wikipedia entry, she is now “best known as the author of a discredited article in Rolling Stone describing the alleged rape of a University of Virginia student by several fraternity members.”  This can hardly have been what she was hoping for when A Rape on Campus was published!

'The Trowenna Sea' by Witi Ihimaera and 'Rolling Stone' Magazine (photo ©Tanya Lunn)

‘The Trowenna Sea’ by Witi Ihimaera and ‘Rolling Stone’ Magazine (photo ©Tanya Lunn)

There is an interesting little postscript to this story.

After completing my assignment, I went into a book shop in town where I was sure I’d seen The Trowenna Sea for sale. The publishers, Penguin (under its imprint Raupo Press), had initially said that they would be bringing out a revised version of the novel with full attributions, but later it was decided not to reissue it for unspecified reasons. The book was never withdrawn, but Ihimaera bought Penguin’s existing warehouse stock of 1800 copies, which he put into a storage unit in Auckland. He said he could not destroy them because he was still proud of them.

The book was indeed for sale in my local bookshop, and they told me that they now buy their copies direct from the author, from his personal supply!

I bought a copy ⧠

 

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