Apr 07 2015

Rolling Stone and Journalism Failure

In November 2014 Rolling Stone magazine published an article called, “A Rape on Campus.” If you click on the link to that article today you are directed to another article on Rolling Stone: “A Rape on Campus,” What Went Wrong?

This one article may have triggered two important conversations in our society. The first was to push forward the conversation on the problem of rape on college campuses. This is a real and serious issue, but as is often the case when a new social issue comes to prominence the basic facts have not been fully vetted and worked through. There are many claims on all sides of the issue, and a lot of new data to sort through. For example, there is ongoing debate over the true incidence of rape on college campuses.

The article also unintentionally sparked a discussion of best journalistic practices. As the editor of Rolling Stone describes:

Last November, we published a story, ‘A Rape on Campus’ [RS 1223], that centered around a University of Virginia student’s horrifying account of her alleged gang rape at a campus fraternity house. Within days, commentators started to question the veracity of our narrative. Then, when The Washington Post uncovered details suggesting that the assault could not have taken place the way we described it, the truth of the story became a subject of national controversy.

Rolling Stone commissioned an independent journalistic investigation, which has now been published. The Columbia Report is a harsh indictment of the failures of the magazine, and a cautionary tale for all journalists.

So, what did go wrong? A New York Times editorial characterizes what went wrong as a failure of skepticism.

The author of the article, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, apparently was caught up in the narrative of a story she wanted to tell. The rape on campus story is big news, and Erdely wanted to tell that story with the most dramatic example she could find to illustrate it. She found the alleged victim, who goes by the shortened name Jackie, through an advocacy group. Jackie told a story which was horrifying and vivid.

There were problems with Joackie’s story, however. She never reported the rape, so there was no paper trail. She did not want Erdely to talk to any of her friends, or anyone who could contradict the details of her story. The mistake of Erdely and her editors was to give too much deference to a sympathetic victim. The horror of the alleged crimes was used to justify a suspension of the usual skeptical rules of good journalism.

In other contexts we call this phenomenon a “witch hunt.”

Erdely could have chosen other rape stories that were perhaps more nuanced and less dramatic, but which had a clear paper trail to verify the account. Erdely or her editors could have insisted on talking to others who could verify some of the supporting details of the rape story. If they had spoken to those people, it is now known, they would have contradicted Jackie’s account. It was therefore left to others do this investigation which eventually debunked the story.

The final nail came when a police investigation, exhausting all leads, could not verify any aspects of the story. The described perpetrator was unknown. The targeted frat house did not have a party on the weekend of the alleged rape. In short – the story unraveled.

The editors of Rolling Stone now acknowledge that giving too much deference to an alleged victim does the victim (and others) a disservice. The fear now is that women who have truly been abused will fear coming forward because the Rolling Stone piece has made everyone more skeptical of rape stories. The story that was meant to highlight the problem of rape may now be having a chilling effect on the very conversation it hoped to move forward.


Read the full report linked to above for all the details. What I want to highlight here is what I feel is the core lesson of this story – do not suspend necessary skepticism because of the righteousness of the cause. In fact, if anything you need to be more skeptical when telling a story you want to tell, one that reinforces your biases or ideology.

Don’t suspend skepticism or best journalistic practices because of the sensitivity of a story, or the sympathetic nature of a victim. The best thing you can do for a victim is skeptical due diligence, to remove any doubt about the veracity of their story because you were a skeptical journalist.

In fact, I can broaden this principle further. It is always a good idea to engage in skeptical due diligence, especially if you believe in the facts being asserted. If you think you have a dramatic new treatment for a horrible disease, that is all the more reason to do rigorous testing to prove that it actually works. If you think you have invented a free energy device, then you should be your own harshest skeptic.

Don’t suspend skepticism because your claims are so important. That is a reason to be more skeptical.

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