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.