In the wake of the incredibly damning Columbia Journalism review of the Rolling Stone article ‘A Rape on Campus’ – which shows systematic failures at all levels, from basic reporting and fact-checking to editorial oversight – Rolling Stone continues to spin the narrative that their failure was primarily one of being overly sensitive to (and perhaps overly trusting of) an alleged rape victim. (In doing so, of course, they continue to heap as much blame as possible on ‘Jackie’, rather than on themselves.) And that narrative appears to be working – today the NY Times calls the fault of their piece ‘a lack of skepticism’, remarking that:
On the most basic level, the writer of the Rolling Stone article, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, was seduced by an untrustworthy source. More specifically, as the report details, she was swept up by the preconceptions that she brought to the article. As much casting director as journalist, she was looking for a single character with an emblematic story that would speak to — in her words — the “pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture” on college campuses.
Journalists are often driven to cover atrocities and personal traumas by the best intentions, chiefly the desire to right wrongs and shed light on injustice — in a word, empathy. It is a noble impulse that animates a lot of important and courageous reporting. But empathy can also be a source of vulnerability for journalists, lowering their defenses against bad information.
But is the failure here really being ‘seduced’ by an untrustworthy source, due to empathy for rape victims? No, of course it isn’t. The failure is not meeting even the basic minimum standards for decent journalism, standards which are fully compatible with empathy for victims.
‘A Rape on Campus’ presents statements attributed to ‘Jackie’s’ friends as direct quotations, when in fact Rubin Erdely never spoke with or interviewed these students. It also makes very serious and very pointed allegations about a specific, readily identifiable group of men without having done even basic investigating. (Rubin Erdely, for example, never asked the fraternity for a list of members which she could cross-check with a list of staff at the aquatic center. She never asked them for information about their social functions on the night of the alleged attack. And so on.) Even some very minimal reporting would have immediately raised questions about the veracity of the account as presented in the article. Her notes reveal how little she did in the way of this sort of fact-checking, but the editors at Rolling Stone let the story through regardless.
That’s not an over-sensitivity to a victim. That’s failure of journalists to do their damn job, all of which could’ve been done while treating the woman at the center of the story with compassion and respect. The bitter irony in all of this is the claim that somehow such errors come from misguided empathy for rape victims, when anyone with genuine empathy for rape victims knows how hard it is to combat skepticism about rape on college campuses, and how much anyone who investigates such matters has a duty to all victims to make sure they do so in a responsible and careful way. Rolling Stone wasn’t trying to help rape victims, they were trying to sell magazines. And as a result of not doing their jobs properly, they’ve done a horrible amount of damage to rape victims in the process.