Rolling Stone brass to undergrads: ‘Feel free to fuck up badly; you won’t get fired’

Rolling Stone’s flawed story and its reaction to a critical report make teaching journalism to the ‘instant gratification’ generation even more difficult

When Rolling Stone’s editorial apparatus published Sabrina Erdely’s story alleging a gang rape at the University of Virginia, it sent this message to journalism students everywhere:

• It’s okay to write 9,000 words and base the principal thrust of the story on only one source.
• It’s okay to take instructions from your one source to not speak to those who might undermine the source’s claims.
• It’s okay to shop for the best circumstances to write a story based on your own biased, preconceived narrative.
• It’s okay, because when the story blows up as dead wrong and leads to national and international condemnation, don’t worry: You won’t get fired, and your publication will feel no need to address the gaping holes in its “editorial apparatus.”

Sabrina Rubin Erdely

Rolling Stone sought to to address the viral condemnation of the piece that erupted following careful reporting by The Washington Post’s T. Reese Shapiro that debunked the accuracy and credibility of Erdely’s reporting. Rolling Stone asked Pulitzer winner Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, to examine the story — its genesis, its reporting, its editing, its fact checking. The report, written by Coll, Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs at Columbia University, and Derek Kravitz, a postgraduate research scholar, excoriated the “editorial apparatus” at Rolling Stone and the higher-ups who oversee it. From the 12,000-word report:

Rolling Stone’s repudiation of the main narrative in “A Rape on Campus” is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking. The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all. The published story glossed over the gaps in the magazine’s reporting by using pseudonyms and by failing to state where important information had come from.

The report has inflamed many who’ve read it. Among them is Jay Rosen at PressThink, whose post provides a more than adequate summary of the report and reactions to it.

I’m more concerned with a principal failure in this story: comparison shopping to support a biased thesis that did not result from unbiased preliminary reporting:

Erdely went shopping, and UVA — “a public school, Southern and genteel” — became the chosen frame for the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. Erdely chose the extraordinary rather than the ordinary. Rolling Stone editors allowed the choice — perhaps because a medium dependent on advertising to fund its business model seeks to maximize shock value. The extraordinary produces far more page views than the ordinary.

Several thousand men and women, including me, teach tens of thousands of undergraduates at several hundred journalism programs in the United States. We teach those who belong to a generation whose “fear of missing out” often leaves them bereft of the ability to wisely assess credibility of information. We teach those who devour digital information hours at a time using multiple screens. We teach a generation that is impatient, one that demands something happen right now.

Rolling Stone is not the only publishing entity prone to one-source principal reporting. The haste to get those page views right now, coupled with the shedding of tens of thousands of newsroom jobs since 2007, has led to pressure to publish before the damn story’s locked down solid. That was Rolling Stone’s failure.

How do we reinforce in undergraduates beset with impatience the attitude that sound reporting requires infinite patience? That it takes one more phone call, one more text, one more email, one more interview, one more source … just to be sure the story’s right.

Rolling Stone made the task of teaching journalism immeasurably more difficult by failing to practice basic tradecraft. Too many of my undergrads think it’s okay to pitch an idea that’s a preconceived attitude and do what Erdely did — shop for circumstances that support the bias. That’s wrong in the news business, and always should be.

4 replies »

  1. As a rape victim who also knows many rape victims, I hate to see a report on rape give ammunition to those who claim there is a lot of false reporting of rape. I just read the other day that FIFTY PERCENT of those surveyed actually believe that more than a WHOPPING FIFTY PERCENT of reported rapes are in fact just women trying to get even with men with whom they are angry or to cover up an unwanted pregnancy!!! As widespread as rape REALLY is, there are actually ALL of these people who believe that more than 50% of rape reports are LIES. It’s horrifying to me. Just look at some comments on Jay Rosen’s piece – they confirm my very worst fears.

    “That means, plain and simple, that it was a hoax. Why can’t we say that? Why can’t we strip “Jackie” of the protections of anonymity? She lied! She falsely accused a group of men of the most horrific crime, and Erdely handed her a megaphone to do it.

    Now I know what ‘Rape Culture’ really is: it’s a political weapon used by the left to advance their own narrative.”

    See, this gives this asshole a chance to completely deny rape culture.

    “Or are they likely to pull in their horns and just go after the low-hanging fruit? Get an easy win.

    You already know the answer to this. You see it on cable news every day.

    It’s why there’s so much reporting on stories that are already being reported on, so much “piling on.” Because we know there’s something there – now we just have to chase down some new aspect of that story.”

    Really? For this commenter, reporting on rape is “low-hanging fruit” and “piling on.” Yes, we know about rape – yawn – nothing new to see here – move along!

    “Moreover, will it confirm the biases of our most loyal audience? Rolling Stone has confirmed themselves as willing to cater to these false narratives, as has Jezebel or lesser light Feministing. This is why Erdely was not fired: she can be relied on to advance the same data-free hypothesis (college campuses are a hotbed of male savagery and female sexual assault) regardless of the facts. It is, in its own way, a sign of theological orthodoxy.”

    So, for this commenter, a rape story will “confirn the BIASES of our most loyal audience.” RS is catering to a FALSE NARRATIVE!!! The FACT that college campuses are INDEED hotbeds of male savagery and female sexual assault gets glossed over here as “DATA-FREE HYPOTHESIS” – dammit. Try telling THAT to all the women I knew who were raped on campus when I was in college.

    “I would be asking about Erdely, and possibly the others, whether it was confirmation bias or a decision that this story, legless as it is, can stand because they could sell Jackie’s credibility to the readers, in part because of the sacralized status of supposed victims. In other words, did they do what Erdely said they did; tell a story and get whatever support they thought would work?”

    The “SACRALIZED STATUS OF SUPPOSED VICTIMS???” Since when are rape victims “sacralized” (which isn’t even a word)?

    “Another story: why our national hysteria–now–over campus rape? What is this particular cultural moment about? How does it fit into the larger picture of who we are? Or does it? What is the context? Or contexts?”

    Here we have a claim that there is, in fact HYSTERIA about campus rape. How it is hysteria to talk about a fucking EPIDEMIC? Furthermore, hysteria is itself a telling, sexist term. It has the same root as hysterectomy, referring to the uterus, and in fact refers to the once widespread belief that the uterus moving all around a woman’s insides was the cause of “hysteria.”

    “You know how you deal with confirmation bias? You hire people from an ideologically varied background, so that you always have someone looking at a story for whom the story violates their beliefs.

    But the one “fix” we won’t hear proposed is that journalism should be hiring more conservatives in order to avoid epistemic closure.”

    “Actually, I suspect Jay would be open to the idea that RS should hire some conservatives if it wants to take on issues that are near and dear to liberals. There’s an intellectual honesty to this approach.”

    I would suggest that a conservative, reading Erdely’s draft and seeing references to “tan” “blond” “buff” would see the red flags indicating a prejudice. Those are ordinarily meaningless descriptors and add to an atmosphere. In the SJW business, they’re indicators of evil. The other non-facts everybody involved in the story pretended to believe–and might have believed–would only have been retailed by those who stupidly believed, or hoped to get others to believe. A conservative, not having swallowed the war on women, one in five and so forth, would neither have been motivated to believe, nor to sell despite not believing. “Have you ever SEEN a beer bottle broken, Mr. Editor?” Of course he has, and this might have brought him back, grudgingly, from the promised land. Apparently nobody working there asked…. That, I don’t really get.”

    Ah, so here we are told we need CONSERVATIVES to get our rape stories straight. Apparently reporting on epidemic rape has an inherent liberal bias. According to this last comment, conservatives have not “SWALLOWED THE WAR ON WOMEN, ONE IN FIVE WOMEN (ARE RAPE VICTIMS)” and are therefore the true impartial judges of rape.

    ” Is it possible that this whole passel of reporters and editors and fact checkers and publishers has never heard of von Munchausen? Not one of them?”

    Ah, no, it isn’t that so many women REALLY are raped…possibly such reports are actually Munchausen Syndrome. How fucking convenient.

    ““How could this happen?”

    It’s happening the same way that decades of outrageous claims about domestic violence against women have appeared in newspapers, congressional documents, law reviews, etc. For analysis with data:

    This colossal media failure is directly related to the rise of mass incarceration in the U.S. For analysis with data:

    Ah, now Rolling Stone’s rape story gone wrong allows this reader to compare rape claims to “OUTRAGEOUS CLAIMS ABOUT DOMESTIC VIOLENCE” and also, sickeningly, to claim that these “outrageous claims about domestic violence” are what’s driving this country’s terrible incarceration rates -in fact, we know that more than half of those imprisoned are there for drug offenses, which need to be decriminalized.

    Thanks a fuck of a lot Rolling Stone,
    a rape victim