Rolling Stone’s botched rape story: how bad journalism happens

7 Apr 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Columbia Deans Blame Rolling Stone, Not ‘Jackie,’ for Rape Story.

Heads are still rolling at Rolling Stone after the magazine was forced to fully retract its now-infamous campus rape story, but students at the University of Virginia still aren’t satisfied. The problem with the magazine’s story was that it had been written in its author’s mind long before the bothersome task of checking facts had been carried out. The Cavalier Daily, UVA’s student newspaper, posted a reaction to this weekend’s big developments and it’s every bit as scathing as the report from The Columbia Journalism Review.

Erdely’s article went on to describe the cold, self-serving reactions of three of Jackie’s supposed friends after they discovered their friend, bloody and distraught, outside the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. On November 19, the alleged victim’s horrifying, detailed account of the incident to Erdely, a contributing writer for Rolling Stone, became the center of 9,000-word investigative feature in the magazine. Yes, really. “Rolling Stone’s Rape Article Failed Because It Used Rightwing [sic] Tactics to Make a Leftist Point,” blares the headline of the piece, written by staff reporter Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig. The Columbia report called into question basically every reporting step and editorial decision that led to the magazine’s publishing of the article detailing the discredited rape; the managing board of the Cavalier is in complete agreement with everything in the report, but they believe that CJR failed to investigate a very crucial aspect: The portrayal of the university itself. The fraternity in question vehemently denied that the assault that she related ever took place, and follow-up reporting by other reporters uncovered facts that seemed to indicate that many of the details set forth in the story could not have happened the way that Jackie and Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the reporter behind the story, related them.

Wenner said any failures were isolated and described Jackie as “a really expert fabulist storyteller” who managed to manipulate the magazine’s journalism process. “We do disagree with any suggestion that this was Jackie’s fault,” Coll said at a news conference in New York, calling the article an object lesson in what not to do when reporting, writing and editing about complex issues. “The editors made judgments about attribution, fact-checking and verification that greatly increased their risks of error but had little or nothing to do with protecting Jackie’s position,” the report found. In the editorial the students argue that Rolling Stone didn’t just misrepresent the fraternity and the now-nonexistent party, but it misrepresented the entire campus—including its culture and its students. At a time when the Obama administration was investigating schools for their mishandling of rape on campus, UVA had grievously failed Jackie and other victims mentioned in Erdely’s story. Apparently, focusing on individual cases is something that only conservatives do, while liberals focus on systematic injustices. (RELATED: New Republic: Obamacare Debate Among ‘Most Transparent In Recent Memory’) “Pinning an indictment of a system on the story of an individual is essentially a rightwing [sic] tactic with a dodgy success rate,” Bruenig writes. “It’s a way of using an individual as a metonym for systematic analysis that [liberal arts major technobabble].” To reiterate, Bruenig believes that the movement that DIDN’T advance the stories of Duke Lacrosse, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Fluke, Matthew Shepard, Tawana Brawley, Cindy Sheehan, Memories Pizza, Emma Sulkowicz, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and Anita Hill is the one that focuses on using individual’s stories to advance a political cause. Within less than a month, the story that had appeared in Rolling Stone had been thoroughly discredited, and many observers were left wondering how such a basic breach of journalistic good practices and ethics could have happened in the first place.

Sullivan said the article hurt efforts to fight sexual violence, tarred the school’s reputation, and falsely accused some students “of heinous, criminal acts and falsely depicted others as indifferent to the suffering of their classmate.” Some students called for Sullivan to pursue disciplinary action against Jackie. They also gave a few examples of misplaced facts from Rolling Stone’s story, such as when the reporter quoted a fourth-year student talking about the importance of parties on campus but failed to mention that he also happened to be the president of a sexual assault prevention group. Two male journalists who dared question the story’s veracity—Richard Bradley, editor-in-chief of Worth magazine who had edited renowned fabulist Stephen Glass, and Robby Soave from the libertarian magazine Reason—were excoriated by feminists as rape apologists and “UVA truthers.” In a nuanced rebuttal to their early skepticism, Jezebel’s Anna Merlan wrote that Soave “takes Bradley’s giant ball of shit and runs with it”, dismissing them both as “two guys who have no idea what they’re talking about.” But it was this very mentality that got Erdely and Rolling Stone into trouble to begin with. Others worried that other women will suffer because of the magazine’s failures. “This is probably going to discourage other sexual assault survivors from coming forward,” said Maggie Rossberg, a second-year nursing student from Crozet, Virginia. After several more weeks of questions and accusations, Rolling Stone announced it had asked the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism to conduct an independent review of the story, the results of which were released Sunday evening.

But in a response to a public records request from The Associated Press, it said five sex assaults had been reported to its Dean of Students office from the start of school through Nov. 23, 2014. The correct answer was “puberty,” which is funny since we bet Tom would have rather gone back in time to go through that awful stage in his life again than be on that Jeopardy stage after giving that awkward answer. #Jeopardy lit up Twitter’s trending topics after Tom’s moment in the spotlight, mostly with people hoping that he made an honest mistake and doesn’t actually think the age of consent is 14 in boys and 12 in girls. Erdely, in her first extensive comments since the article was cast into doubt, apologized to Rolling Stone’s readers, her colleagues and “any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.” In an interview discussing Columbia’s findings, Jann S. Asked repeatedly if Erdely or her editors should face repercussions—up to and including being fired—Coll and Coronel said they will “leave it up to Rolling Stone to decide how to solve these problems.” Asked by ABC News’s David Wright what he would do if he were in charge of Rolling Stone, Coll demurred, saying, “I don’t have the information I would require as a boss” to decide how to deal with Erdely and the editors and fact checkers. Details (or lack thereof) that should have been triple-checked were pushed through without considerable fuss because, according to the story’s primary editor Sean Woods, they wanted to be “deferential to the victim.” While the authors of the report say this explanation “cannot adequately account for what went wrong,” it’s clear that Erdely wanted Jackie’s story to be true, even if she had doubts about her subject’s narrative.

So we like to think of this episode of Jeopardy as what Walt would have done to make money on Breaking Bad had he not gone in the meth-making business. She was the victim not only of a sadistic sex crime, but also of an institutional failure at UVA. “Erdely believed the university was obstructing justice,” the J-School report notes. “UVA had a flawed record of managing sexual assault cases. If the fraternity had had more information, it might have been able to respond in ways that would raise doubts among journalists, the review concluded. We all have pre-existing biases, and it can be difficult to get out of our own way as journalists— to disregard whatever preconceived notions, politically motivated opinions, or gut feelings we have about our sources. An activist’s job is to protect victims, so it’s no wonder they think that the burden of proof in rape cases should fall on the alleged assailant.

To rebuild trust among its readers, Coll said, the magazine should adopt the best practices of other leading media organizations, including banning the use of pseudonyms, being particularly cautious to share detailed allegations with the accused so that they can fully and fairly respond, and being transparent to readers about what the authors know and don’t know. But journalists are not in the business of protecting people’s feelings, as much as we often feel compelled to do so, whether for personal reasons or because we don’t want to seem indifferent to today’s popular feminist-activist agenda. If the magazine had successfully gotten in touch with the three friends Jackie claimed she saw the evening she was raped, they would have contradicted the account Jackie gave Erdely, including the defamatory remarks about “Cindy,” who was labeled a “self-described hook-up queen” in the original story.

And when Jackie gave vague information identifying her assailant, citing fears that he would attack her, Erdely should have gone to greater lengths to confirm or refute her word. Instead of seeing this as a red flag, as she should have, Erdely apparently went along with the request not to contact others about the claims she was making. Erdely did not seek to independently contact three of Jackie’s friends, who were quoted in the piece, using pseudonyms, expressing trepidation at the idea of Jackie telling the authorities that she had been assaulted. She said in her apology that reading the report was “a brutal and humbling experience.” She also acknowledged that she did not do enough to verify Jackie’s account. It’s still not clear why it happened, but one can imagine that it was likely the case that they became too sympathetic to the accuser that was the subject of their story to the point where they simply abandoned the need for journalists to approach a story like this with the kind of objectivity that requires them to, at least initially, be skeptical about what they’re being told.

Among other things, the manner in which universities often try to sweep these stories under the rug by conducting secret internal disciplinary investigations rather than referring the matter to the police as it should has the potential to harm both victims and those accused of such crimes. As with every other report of a crime, though, that does not mean that the allegations of a victim should be accepted as face value or that there should not be further investigation to attempt to verify the claims that they make. A criminal trial conducted after such an investigation would be an affront to justice, and the same goes for a journalist’s “investigation” of such a story.

Instead, I would suggest that it will be a long time before anyone should take any reporting from Rolling Stone seriously again, especially if any of the players involved in this story are connected to that reporting. Additionally, Rolling Stone may find itself subjected to libel suits in the not too distant future, a possibility that Eugene Volokh explored in a post back in December and in a follow-up post last night. Whether you’re a national reporter or just a local crime reporter, it’s crucial that you don’t simply take what you’re being told at face value.

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