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Rolling Stone’s Elephant in the Room
The Columbia Journalism Review has published a thorough analysis of the Rolling Stone campus rape story debacle. It describes a well intentioned but deeply flawed editorial process that extended too much such sensitivity to an alleged victim of a heinous sex crime.
But there’s an elephant left in the room: the likelihood that it was not sensitivity but the magazine’s fervor to advance an agenda that blinded its writer and editorial supervisors to basic tenets of good journalism.
As I discuss in “Stonewalled,” the tendency to steer a narrative in a chosen direction is one of the most prevalent barriers to honest journalism today:
“In some cases, we’re little more than casting agents. Entire stories are conceived of by New York managers who not only assign a given topic but also tell us whom we should interview, what they should say, and how the story should be written. We’re asked to create a reality that fits their New York image of what they believe, what they’ve read, what they’ve been told by their contacts, or what they’ve heard at parties…It’s as if they’re ordering up their own little novelettes instead of allowing us to seek out and portray the reality.”–Stonewalled, Harper Collins
Based on the facts laid out in the Columbia Journalism Review, it appears Rolling Stone author Sabrina Rubin Erdely sought to cast characters to fulfill an agenda, and presented them to like-minded managers who were also eager to advance the chosen narrative.
Research on most any story begins with a dose of preconceived notions based on some combination of a writer’s knowledge, opinions, facts and research. The peril comes in looking the other way when actual fieldwork reveals a different truth.
Reporters shouldn’t fear investigating a story that doesn’t turn out the way they thought it would—or should. In reality, there are few things more intellectually challenging and rewarding than the pure exercise of following a story where it leads—abandoning personal and preconceived notions when the facts necessitate—even when special interests, colleagues and managers push you to stick to the narrative.
Faced with the dilemma of “Jackie” as an unreliable source, Erdely could have easily removed her from the story or included the nuances to illustrate why it can sometimes be so difficult for reporters, police and universities to get at the truth in alleged instances of campus rape.
The biggest piece of evidence that points to a possible intent to mislead rather than an innocent accident of oversensitivity on Rolling Stone’s part is a nagging quote discussed at length in the Columbia Journalism Review analysis. One in which Erdely made it seem as if she had spoken to a witness—when she hadn’t. The witness quote had been provided by “Jackie,” third-hand. A Rolling Stone fact-checker flagged the problem and rightfully suggested the nature of the quote be disclosed and attributed to “Jackie,” but the suggestion was rejected by Rolling Stone principal editor Sean Woods, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. As it turned out, the quote was inaccurate: “never happened,” said the student who had been quoted. How can that be viewed as anything other than an effort to hide the truth from readers?
Otherwise, how easy it would have been to revise the quote as the fact-checker suggested and as basic journalism tenets dictate. How simple it would have been, if Rolling Stone felt its actions were right and defensible, to disclose in the original article that Erdeley had not spoken to many witnesses due to the sensitivity the magazine felt was due the alleged rape victim.
Rolling Stone and publications like it are not news organizations. It has built a reputation producing controversial, opinion-themed, sometimes questionable in-your-face stories. Even the most traditional news organizations make mistakes. It should be no great surprise that a pop culture magazine has an editorial process and culture that lent itself to great shortfalls.
There’s little doubt, given the Columbia Journalism Review’s analysis, that had Erdely found gaping holes in the story of the alleged rapists, the magazine would have highlighted them rather than hid or explained them away.
It’s hard to imagine that the wholesale breakdown of Rolling Stone’s editorial process as described in the Columbia Journalism Review is an anomaly. Processes don’t typically work perfectly until one day when commonsense is suddenly thrown out the window. Yet there has been no strong push to review past agenda-driven stories published in Rolling Stone or by the players involved.
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