5 questions about Rolling Stone’s gang-rape reporting (updated twice)

Rolling Stone's story about a college's response to a rape report is important. But is it fair?

Rolling Stone’s story about a college’s response to a rape report is important. But is it fair?

Last month, Rolling Stone published a frustrating story by Sabrina Rubin Erdely about a young woman who said she was gang-raped on the campus of the University of Virginia. The story was, at first, frustrating because it depicted a university stuck in the Stone Age, unwilling to deal properly with sexual assault, and a campus culture in which women were afraid that helping someone who’d been raped would keep them from being invited to future frat parties.

More recently, the story has become frustrating because questions raised about the reporting methods Erdely used are being met with either a wall of silence or stern but unilluminating defenses.

For me, the whole thing is triply frustrating because some of the coverage of the original story raises even more questions and doesn’t address them.

Whatever happened to shoe leather?

Erik Wemple criticizes Erdely for not doing more to try to talk to the students accused.

The charge in this piece, however, is gang rape, and so requires every possible step to reach out and interview them, including e-mails, phone calls, certified letters, FedEx letters, UPS letters and, if all of that fails, a knock on the door.

Have we really come to this point, where looking for someone in person is only the last resort? If a reporter did want to talk to these men, seeking them out in person should have been the first step. Emails, calls and letters can be too easily dodged, while putting the subjects on guard.

Whatever happened to fairness?

The New York Times says that Columbia journalism prof Helen Benedict saw nothing wrong with not including the accused students in the reporting.

“If a reporter were doing a story about a university accused of failing to address the mugging or robbery of a student, that reporter would not be expected to interview the alleged mugger or robber,” she said.

That’s true only if a) the identity of the accused mugger wasn’t known, or b) the fact of the mugging had been established. If, on the other hand, someone said they’d been mugged by Joe Smith and there’d been neither legal action nor a public statement from Smith, the editor in me would want to get his side even if the reporter insisted that the point of the story was the university’s response. If someone’s accused of a crime in a story, it doesn’t matter whether that’s the focus or only a detail.

Doesn’t anyone remember guilt by association?

Does it matter that the men weren’t named? They’re mentioned by pseudonyms. Erdely explained (somewhat) that decision when she talked to Slate:

She said that she did not identify the men in the article “by Jackie’s request. She asked me not to name the individuals because she’s so fearful of them. That was something we agreed on.” Erdely would not say, however, whether she knew who they were. “I can’t answer that,” she told the Post. “This was a topic that made Jackie extremely uncomfortable.”

I’ve got no complaint about the decision not to name the accused in the story, especially for the reason given. The implication that Jackie knows who her attackers are but might not have named them to the reporter would make the editor in me very nervous, but I would want to talk to someone more experienced at reporting on trauma.

However, the real problem I have is that while the men aren’t named, they are identified. Most importantly, they’re identified as members of a particular fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi. It’s been a long time since my ethics and law classes in journalism school, but I remember two things well:

First, you don’t have to name someone to libel them. If you provide enough detail for people in their community to recognize them, libel is still possible. There are some details provided that would easily lead other students to figure out who Erdely’s talking about.

Second, the ethical offense is in some ways worse if you don’t name someone but do name the group they’re part of. Because you haven’t singled out an individual, you cast the shadow of guilt on every member. That’s precisely what Erdely’s done with Phi Kappa Psi. While individual members may not be legally entitled to sue for defamation — the standard there partly involves the size of the group — it’s still an ethical mistake.

Can’t we hold two thoughts at the same time?

In response to questions from the Washington Post about Erdely’s reporting, she declined to provide specifics but suggested the Post was wrong to even ask.

“I could address many of [the questions] individually . . . but by dwelling on this, you’re getting sidetracked,” she wrote in an e-mail response to The Post’s inquiry. “As I’ve already told you, the gang-rape scene that leads the story is the alarming account that Jackie — a person whom I found to be credible — told to me, told her friends, and importantly, what she told the UVA administration, which chose not to act on her allegations in any way — i.e., the overarching point of the article. THAT is the story: the culture that greeted her and so many other UVA women I interviewed, who came forward with allegations, only to be met with indifference.”

It is disappointing to see a fellow journalist use the same kind of bogus argument as those tiresome commenters who go into story after story on a news website to say things like “How can you report  about an Easter egg roll when there are soldiers dying in Afghanistan? Where’s THAT story?”

It is entirely possible to care about the way colleges deal with rape allegations and to have concerns about the reporting process involved in a particular story. If we were not allowed to question the reporting on a story because the story’s focus was too important, Janet Cooke would have been able to hold onto her Pulitzer. How dare anyone challenge a story about Children Using Drugs?

Why are we still having arguments like this?

Andrew Beaujon notes that questions about the reporting have fueled the fires of some who were already denying that sexual assault on campuses was a problem.

A counter-narrative is already forming because of Rolling Stone’s decision not to report out its source’s explosive story: Just look at this Jonah Goldberg piece: “Erdely’s story was reported uncritically for days as a powerful example of the ‘rape epidemic’ that is somehow taking place amidst a 20-year decline in reported rapes.” (NRO) | There will be an epidemic of such scare quotes if Rolling Stone’s story doesn’t check out.

I don’t put any weight on the argument that bad reporting in this case will help the Jonah Goldbergs of this world. The political polarization of our era means that any fact can be twisted to support preconceived opinions — or, in modern lingo, haters gonna hate.

However, it has been a journalistic truism throughout my career that the most serious stories require the most rigorous reporting. If you’re going to take on an issue such as sexual assault on campus and the way colleges deal with it, you have to make sure the story is bullet-proof.

This last point may be the most important. Just in the newspapers I’ve worked on myself, I’ve seen too many important stories get pushed into print despite reporting flaws. I had a colleague who — deservedly — lost a big libel suit, but to this day other colleagues insist he always “had everything nailed down.” The attitude that the ends justify any sloppiness in the means is one of journalism’s hidden cancers. We must be able to separate our critique of reporting from our feelings about the reporter or the subject.

UPDATE 1

Reactions to the Rolling Stone article keep popping up in my social media accounts, drawing me to three more questions.

Why was that the lead of the story?

Part of Erdely’s statement to the Post, quoted above, keeps coming back to me:

THAT is the story: the culture that greeted her and so many other UVA women I interviewed, who came forward with allegations, only to be met with indifference.

So, if that’s the story — not the details of what actually happened in that fraternity, but how UVA handled the woman’s report — why does the story lead off with the thing that isn’t the focus?

Of course, we know why: Because the grisly account of what she says happened in the room is more gripping than the responsible approach. That approach could have been, for example, to lead with her and her friends afterward, a scene for which there are multiple witness accounts, and then to introduce the woman’s account of the rape in the context of her reporting it to the university. Doing it that way still would have allowed Rolling Stone to use her report, but would have made it very clear that it was unverified. And it would have put the focus more clearly where Erdely claims it should be. But it wouldn’t have been as emotionally powerful.

The guidelines of narrative journalism preach the importance of putting the reader in the room when key events happen. Those guidelines are correct; that is the most effective practice. However,  good narrative nonfiction is so difficult to carry off because all the guidelines about effective storytelling are hitched to journalism’s rules about sticking to the facts you know to be true.

Rolling Stone can’t have it both ways. Either the story was about what happened that night, in which case its reporting on those events was shallow and irresponsible, or it was about the aftermath, in which case the lead was sensationalistic and irresponsible.

What’s wrong with being skeptical?

David Folkenflik of NPR says that Erdely believes attacks on her reporting amount to an assault on the credibility of the woman she calls Jackie.

Isn’t questioning what people tell us supposed to be our job as journalists? Isn’t that the whole idea behind the old Chicago City News Bureau motto, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out”? We’re supposed to question the credibility of everyone — up to college presidents and the leader of the Free World, but also down to the average man or woman.

The latest edition of Radiolab, the brilliant NPR podcast, is a fascinating story about the wide gap between eyewitness accounts of what happened during the 2013 terrorist attack on a Nairobi shopping mall, on the one hand, and what video from inside the mall actually proves, on the other. This is real life: Our stories, even ones we believe in fervently, aren’t always accurate. To question Jackie’s account is not equivalent to accusing her of lying; it’s an attempt to get closer to the truth. Erdely’s willingness to avoid the only people who might be able to offer evidence that Jackie’s account is untrue is not an act of compassion; it’s journalistic malpractice.

Is being true-ish enough?

Richard Bradley dissects Rolling Stone’s statement on his Shots in the Dark blog.

The magazine clearly has lost confidence that it knows what happened that night—despite the fact that it published a chillingly specific account of a gang rape. And it can not re-report the story now. What’s done is done.

Also, it wants to put the onus of responsibility on Jackie, without looking like it is discrediting her. The magazine is carefully distancing itself from its primary source, but doing so in a way that it hopes no one will notice.

That’s a harsh assessment of the magazine’s motives. The way I read the statement, and Erdely’s quotes, what they’re really saying is that the literal truth of Jackie’s account doesn’t affect their story — that even if things didn’t happen the way she says they did, her account sounds true and makes an important point, and that’s enough.

This is not such an unusual argument. The idea that literal truth is less important than emotional truth is a common defense used by novelists, playwrights and script writers when they are criticized for fictionalizing history. Even within journalism, the idea that facts aren’t essential to telling a “true” story has quite a history. Lots of journalists still praise Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and urge its use in journalism schools, decades after it was proven that the book is full of flawed reporting — indeed, intentionally flawed reporting.

If that’s the armor Erdely and the magazine want to wear, though, they should come right out and say it.

UPDATE 2

That didn’t take long: Rolling Stone has apologized for the story and admitted its reporting was slipshod.

In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account.

It is important for journalists to be sensitive toward their sources, particularly when those sources have gone through emotional distress. It is at least as important, however, to be sensitive toward those people we pull into our stories unwillingly. And we must let no other priority prevent us from finding and reporting the truth to the best of our ability.

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