Rolling Stone’s fatal flaw: Wanting its UVA rape story to be true

There’s an old adage in journalism that says: “Any story that looks too good to be true probably is.” And yet, respected media entities repeatedly print news stories that turn out to have been exaggerated wildly or completely fabricated. Why? Because in many cases the desire to tell a great — or important, or scandalous, or fascinating — story trumps journalistic principles. In the latest example, Rolling Stone magazine reported a blockbuster story about campus rape at the University of Virginia that appears to be almost completely untrue.

After months of criticism of the piece — which told the story of a sexual-assault victim named Jackie and her attempts to get the university to take action against her attackers — the magazine agreed to submit its work to an independent review by the Columbia Journalism School in New York. The review board’s report was released late Sunday night, and it contains a litany of journalistic malfeasance on the part of the Rolling Stone writer and her editors.

Among other things, the reporter involved in the story apparently failed to do even a minimal amount of checking to determine whether Jackie’s account of the assault could be corroborated, such as trying to track down and confront the individuals she identified, or trying to verify some of the obvious details of the attack. And that continued to be the case even as the story went through multiple levels of editorial oversight. As the report puts it:

“[This] 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.”

Why would an institution like Rolling Stone — which has made a name for itself in the past with deeply reported features like the piece it did on former NATO commander Stanley McChrystal, which got the general fired — take such a risk? Former New York Times editor Bill Keller argued in an interview with the Times that the pressure from the internet to engage in “clickbait” exacerbated the problems with the story, and there is some truth to that. Even though Rolling Stone is a monthly magazine, it is part of a much more competitive media landscape than ever before.

But the real reason why the magazine and its editors failed to perform some of the most rudimentary journalistic tasks is the same as it has been in almost every previous example of such malfeasance — including the New York Times’ reporting on the case for intervention in Iraq in 2003, and the more recent Newsweek blockbuster feature on the secretive inventor of Bitcoin, which also turned out to be almost completely fabricated. And the reason is that the writers and editors in question desperately wanted the story to be true.

Campus rape is arguably a huge problem in America, and an extremely painful one, and stories like the one told by Jackie are all too commonplace: male fraternities as a breeding ground for such behavior, campus officials overlooking or downplaying such incidents, victims being blamed for their own assaults, and so on. Jackie’s tale was the perfect synthesis of all of these sub-themes, and as such it could be counted on to be both a massive attention-getting device and an important political and cultural document. The perfect combination. The report says:

“The problem of confirmation bias – the tendency of people to be trapped by pre-existing assumptions and to select facts that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones – is a well-established finding of social science. It seems to have been a factor here.”

This desire to have a story be true is such a powerful drug that it can overcome even the most hard-core and deeply-ingrained journalistic instincts of senior editors at institutions like the New York Times, Newsweek and obviously Rolling Stone. It can convince a writer that checking a source’s report isn’t worth it, and it can convince editors not to bother requesting such a check. In the case of the Rolling Stone feature, interestingly enough, having more editors apply their expertise to the story may have actually exacerbated the problem rather than curing it, according to former Columbia journalism professor Bill Grueskin.

There’s one other aspect of the Rolling Stone controversy that stands out, and that is the almost complete lack of repercussions for any of the writers and editors involved in the story. The magazine should be congratulated for asking for — and then making public — an independent investigation of its practices, something that happens all too infrequently. But how could it then decide to absolve its staff of any penalty for their failure, and on top of that say it doesn’t plan to change any of its editorial processes?

If the trust of readers is one of the most valuable currencies we have in the current media landscape — as I would argue it is — then Rolling Stone banked a substantial amount by agreeing to the public review, but has spent all that and more by failing to take even the most rudimentary steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

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