The willing suspension of disbelief and the Rolling Stone story

We had a great discussion in class today about the Rolling Stone story about sexual assault at UVa and the story of Jackie in particular.

One or two of you said you had profound doubts about the veracity of the story from the very beginning. I had some questions but not profound doubts, and all of last weekend and the past couple of days as the disclosures have complicated my impression of the work Erdely did (and failed to do) I’ve asked myself why I didn’t doubt more deeply.

First and foremost, I assumed Erdely and Rolling Stone had done all they could to corroborate Jackie’s account (I didn’t think asking the alleged assailants directly would reap any conclusive answers, but it might have raised some red flags). I teach reporting, and we have a high standard here. I made the mistake of thinking that Rolling Stone, which has been known for its excellent journalism in the past, adhered to a similarly high standard. In fact, Erdely and her editor or editors, I fear, wanted so badly for that story to be true in every detail that they walked away from their duty to check each of them out. Magazines have fact-checkers, right?

But why didn’t details leap out at me as highly implausible? Like the contact with broken glass for three hours, the blood no one seems to have seen, the thrown bottle, etc.?

Because I wasn’t editing the story; I was reading it, and I was caught up in its powerful current.

Second: As one of you pointed out in class today, it’s difficult to believe that anyone would fabricate a sexual assault allegation of this magnitude. It’s so hard to come forward, and the aftermath often so unpleasant, that it’s hard to imagine anyone putting himself or herself through that unless some justice lay at the other end of the process.

Third: In the mid-1990s, I leapt the fence and spent a few years in the victim rights’ world. I heard a lot of stories awful enough (some worse than this one) to widen my imagination’s capacity for comprehending how brutal human beings can be to each other. So I am inclined to believe, as a reader. I also know how much completely unjustified doubt and skepticism sexual assault victims encounter, so I start out from a different place — partly because of how unfair all of that is.

But that’s not how I operate as an editor. My former student, Nigel, who is very upset with me about last week’s blog post, claims I would have thrown him out the window if he’d come to me with a story as half-baked as he thinks Rolling Stone’s story was. He’s exaggerating, of course, but he’s right that it wouldn’t have made it past me.

If we just choose to believe that a thing is true and report it, we’re engaging in the journalism of affirmation, and there’s far too much of that kind of thing out there already. I think that in the end, knowing what we know now, or, maybe more precisely, acknowledging what we don’t know and may never know, Rolling Stone produced an example of the journalism of affirmation. And it hurt a lot of people, especially a trauma survivor who deserved a whole lot better. It hurt efforts to raise awareness about sexual assault.

But it also hurt readers and journalism.

The magazine, we seemed to agree today, had much better choices. It could have done a pretty strong story that was more transparent about what it could not confirm about Jackie’s account, or it could have gone back to work and found a stronger example that, while probably less explosive, would have withstood scrutiny and engaged readers in the very important subject the article sought to illuminate.

I thought I might apologize for asking all of you to read it. And then I realized, boy did we do some ethics this past week. As a cautionary tale, it’s instructive. As journalism, it’s a disaster.

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5 Responses to The willing suspension of disbelief and the Rolling Stone story

  1. katherinejlegry says:

    Moral of the tale: Don’t trust journalists.

    There is NOTHING AWESOME about your cautionary tale. Unless you just mean dumbfounding. How easy it seems for you to walk away and dismiss the topic after a satisfying class discussion. Maybe it’s just relief. A quickie divorce after a shotgun wedding. Ethics? Journalistic ethics? Journalist ethics went out the window when news networks went corporate.

    I wonder how Bill Cosby is doing…

    • reedkath says:

      I’m sorry you think anyone is “walking away.” I’ve reported on this subject for years and expect to continue to do so.

      • katherinejlegry says:

        It’s the way you had to go down the list of why you made the mistakes you did in reporting and how you thought maybe to issue an apology but on second thought look on the bright side attitude, that seems a walk away.

        I don’t know your work well enough to throw you under a bus and wouldn’t need to do that regardless.

        But the basic “We were all sloppy, shoulda been better” so “my bad” excuses are really more about intellectual discussion groups protecting everyone but the rape victims now.

        I know you care. I know you tried. I apologize for any rudeness. But wow.

  2. K.S. Hernandez says:

    You’re right this whole issue has taken the spotlight off of a very real and specific problem of sexual assault on college campuses. Further, the spotlight has been shown brightly on the inaccuracies in a traumatic accounting and the poor reporting of it, this is allowing the fraternities to quietly reassemble themselves and to also try and save face as well as get around being held accountable for their beyond lax approach to fix the problem of sexual assault on college campuses. Most traumatic accounts are filled with inaccuracies because of what happens psychologically to a person who is raped. Sometimes Items are taken out of place and blocked out then remembered, so Rollingstones Magazine is just making excuses and are probably also trying to save face. Looks like their pseudo-recantation is also filled with errors. When will that end?

    • ajhf34 says:

      To add to the inaccuracy part, in many of these cases the victim could have been drunk or even drugged, thus affecting her memory of what could have happened. I think a great amount of care always needs to be taken here with these types of stories and to consider that memories could be cloudy because of the psychological damage done.

      I think what this may do is make is even more difficult for rape victims to come forward now, not feeling comfortable that they will not receive backlash. Which is even more problematic when it seems like the number of sexual assault and rape accusations at MU has been increasing over the last couple. It also is curious if universities may silence rape allegations to help their image to not be known as a “rape school.”

      But at the same time, one has to consider if the person is having a “morning after” regret or consented while not being sober, or someone trying to make a fast buck because I would worry that that may become prevalent if given the right circumstances.

      I really don’t think a concrete answer applies to stories like this, as unsatisfying as it may be. Each one needs to be handled on its own and then once all the evidence and testimonies are considered would an opinion be made. And I wouldn’t publish names of the victim or accuser until the case became public record in one of those “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” scenarios to keep the possible public backlash out of it.

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