Rolling Stone’s problems are journalism’s problems, too

What went wrong with Rolling Stone's rape story? Everything.

What went wrong with Rolling Stone’s rape story? Everything.

Like many other journalist, I read the Columbia Journalism School’s report on the Rolling Stone rape story and was appalled. But even as thorough an analysis of it as Jay Rosen’s on his PressThink blog leaves me thinking the reaction is missing the point. Yes, Rolling Stone screwed up. Yes, the errors its reporter and editors made were violations of well-known journalism standards, and their apologies and explanations are unsatisfyingly tepid. But the real story here isn’t what happened with this one story; it’s how journalism really works.

On the surface, after all, Rolling Stone did all the things that our industry claims make our work professional: The reporter interviewed multiple sources. The story went past its primary editor more than once. The two top dogs, Managing Editor Will Dana and Publisher Jann Wenner, read the story before publication. It went to a fact-checker — a procedure theoretically even more rigorous than a newspaper’s copy editing. And it was lawyered.

So how did they screw up so thoroughly?

  • Compromises were made; an editor used pseudonyms in cases where he and his reporter were aware they didn’t really know who said what.
  • Hard questions were dodged; the reporter stopped pushing her source because she was afraid of losing the story, and the editor stopped pushing the reporter because, well, it seems because he just got tired of pushing.
  • The top dogs, Dana and Wenner, declined to interrogate the story — saying now that they thought their subordinates took care of such details. Had he only known that there were questions about the story, Dana says, he certainly would have intervened. It is so hard for an editor when his minions don’t point out their sloppiness to him.
  • The fact-checker’s concerns were brushed away.
  • The reporter says she wishes her editor had pushed her more — in other words, she should not be expected to have enough self-motivation to do the job right.
  • The reporter, and her editor, and the fact-checker all say that their main source was just ever so believable. (Except for all those questions she dodged and those phone calls she didn’t return and those names she couldn’t remember and those people she never put the reporter in touch with, and so on.)

Yes, all bad. But, you know what? I’ve seen all that before. And I’ve seen worse. I’ve seen editors order a story rewritten, or rewrite it themselves, to fit the budget line they promised before reporting began, or to make it the kind of story that could get picked for the front page (and thus earn them brownie points). I’ve seen colleagues excuse away sloppy reporting because they believed the reporter was on the side of right — yes, and even lift such a reporter to their personal pantheon while turning a blind eye to a history of overreaching.

Certainly, there are times and places where the bar is high. The Detroit Free Press in the mid-80s had a take-no-prisoners copy desk and a slew of take-no-guff editors, people like Mike Stanton, who ran the news desk; Tom Ferguson and Jeanne May, copy editors extraordinaire, and Alexander P. Cruden, the national/foreign editor, and many others.

But in my experience, and from many conversations with other journalists, I know that what occurred at Rolling Stone is far from unique. Our industry’s unwillingness to admit how common its flaws are (and were, long before cutbacks) is one big reason it struggles in an age of mass fact-checking. Here’s why we can’t blame things on having fewer bodies in the newsrooms: It doesn’t matter how many diligent, determined journalists you put in a room; just one weak link, sufficiently high up the chain, can let bad stories get through. And when bad work gets close enough to publication, there is a tendency to circle the wagons — a tendency that produces the kind of defensiveness I wrote about in the immediate aftermath of this story’s publication.

Even good links can be bad, sometimes. I once edited a single-source story reporting on a questionable payout by a company in bankruptcy. After the fact, our editor — Doug Clifton — spotted it and called me on it. I admitted it was a single source, but, I said, one that was really, really good. The story turned out to be true — but Clifton was right to call me on it.

Steve Buttry focused his reaction to this week’s report in part on how key people in the chain “had too strong a vision of what the story should be and not a strong enough commitment to learn what it really was.” He’s right, of course, but I see a broader problem. There is a great temptation for journalists to adopt a Manichean worldview, in which stories must have heroes who are all good and villains who are all bad. It makes for a tidy narrative.

Such a lack of nuance makes those narratives very likely to unravel. And here’s where the Rolling Stone mess and its editors’ flimsy response goes beyond being bad journalism and becomes a sin: The collapse of this one story casts doubt on all other reporting about sexual assault. We journalists like to talk about our value to society, but this is the flip side. Our errors don’t just affect us.

Reporter Sabrina Erdely, according to the Columbia report, frequently cited her sensitivity to the alleged victim as a reason for failing to press too hard or check too thoroughly. That logic is inside out. We do victims of sexual assault no favors when we fail to investigate their stories before publishing them. We know that eyewitness testimony is often flawed. One imagines that this is at least as true for those who have endured trauma. Isn’t it better to uncover and resolve discrepancies in the reporting, rather than let the victim be picked apart in public?

Can we hope for change? I fear not, and here’s why: Consider how many people outside Rolling Stone have been damaged by this epic failure. That’s the sin of sloppy reporting: It causes far more social ill than other ethical lapses, such as plagiarism or removing an errant pair of legs from a photo. We fire plagiarists on the spot and shove photographers out the door for Photoshopping. But sloppy reporting and editing?

In an interview discussing Columbia’s findings, Jann S. Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone, acknowledged the piece’s flaws but said that it represented an isolated and unusual episode and that Ms. Erdely would continue to write for the magazine…. Mr. Wenner said Will Dana, the magazine’s managing editor, and the editor of the article, Sean Woods, would keep their jobs.

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