‘A Rape on Campus’ was a failure of journalism

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.

14 thoughts on “‘A Rape on Campus’ was a failure of journalism

  1. To their credit, at least RS also says, “Yet the explanation that Rolling Stone failed because it deferred to a victim cannot adequately account for what went wrong. Erdely’s reporting records and interviews with participants make clear that the magazine did not pursue important reporting paths even when Jackie had made no request that they refrain. The editors made judgments about attribution, fact-checking and verification that greatly increased their risks of error but had little or nothing to do with protecting Jackie’s position.”

  2. Hi Kate,

    Yes, that’s a really nice statement, but it’s not from Rolling Stone (though it’s printed in their magazine). It’s from the – external – Columbia review. I was referring more to the statements from the editors and the journalist involved, which are exactly what the Columbia piece is criticizing in that paragraph.

  3. Here’s a question: do you think confirmation bias played no role whatsoever in Erderly’s reporting? To be clear, there are many, many people at fault here. To exempt Jackie seems infantilizing.

  4. No, I definitely don’t think confirmation bias played no role in Erderly’s reporting. I suspect that Jackie’s story was exactly what she was looking for – a sensational, headline-grabbing story about campus rape – and she ran with it. But her failure as a journalist isn’t in initially believing the story, it’s in not doing even *basic* investigative reporting about that story. Maybe she would’ve been a better reporter if she’d been less invested – who can say, really – but plenty of excellent reporters manage to balance emotional investment in a topic with journalistic ethics.

    That being said, I don’t think it’s at all infantilizing to exempt Jackie from fault in the RS story itself. She may well be at fault for plenty of other things, depending on how and why she fabricated her story the way she did. (I’m in not position to make a judgement about that – she may have been traumatized, she may be mentally ill, we just don’t know.) But she isn’t responsible for a badly reported story, not the least because she isn’t a reporter. She was a source whose story turned out not to be credible, and could’ve been discovered not to be credible via *minimal* investigation. That her story was reported in a national magazine exactly as she told it is entirely a failure of journalism.

  5. I totally agree, people are too quick to use cases like RS’s lack of proper journalism to start victim blaming and making accusations that more rape allegations are false than true. This way of mind makes it so dangerous for more rape victims to come forward, for fear of being told they’re lying.

  6. It’s not (I take it) that Jackie ought or ought not to be to blame; it’s that we shouldn’t be having the conversation, because Jackie shouldn’t be a public figure, and wouldn’t be were it not for major journalistic failings. To even have the conversation in a public space is to exacerbate RS’s failure.

  7. Yes, well said, David. That’s a good point. Although at this point it’s hard to avoid having this kind of conversation, given that the RS staff continue to try to pass the buck to Jackie.

  8. I have two questions. First, how does a reporter doing exactly what this blog always says we should do — “believe the accuser” — make this a failure of journalism? Or should the reporter have believed her but not been willing to act on her belief? There’s a prima facie inconsistency here, and I would be interested in knowing how the blog contributors think it should be resolved.

    Second, magical says, “the RS staff continue to try to pass the buck to Jackie”. Jackie lied. To a reporter. Certainly she is responsible for that. I don’t understand how the reporter is solely to blame, or even the most blameworthy. If my son tells me a story that his friend told him, and then I find out the friend was lying, I don’t blame my son for telling me. Nor would I blame my son if he’d written up the story in the school newspaper.

  9. Regarding your first question, there’s not even a prima facie tension here if you read what actually gets said on this blog – and in other feminist conversations – about believing rape victims. We never say that rape victims should always be believed unquestionably in any circumstance, in the face of any disconfirming evidence, etc. I don’t think anyone thinks that, and it’s a complete (and all too common) caricature of the typical feminist position. What we often say is that we should believe rape victims in the sense that we shouldn’t treat them with more skepticism that we do victims of other crimes, and we shouldn’t – *in the first instance* – demand that they somehow ‘prove’ their status as victims. If someone comes to me and says their wallet was stolen, I’d likely respond by saying “Oh no! Where did it happen? What did the thief look like? Have you managed to get it back?” And so on. My *default* reaction is belief. But all too often, when someone comes forward saying they were raped, our *default* reaction is “Are you sure? Maybe you were just drunk? Is this just a misunderstanding?” Etc. We immediately ask the person who says that were raped to legitimate their status as a rape victim, in a way we don’t for the person who says they were robbed. (Even though plenty of people lie about being robbed.) The standard feminist line is that our default reaction to rape should mirror our default reaction to other crimes. That is, our default reaction should be one of belief.

    That’s a far cry from saying that we should always, everywhere, and in all circumstances ultimately believe all accounts of rape.* And that’s also a hell of a long way from saying that someone is justified is writing a story in a national magazine just based on an initial report, without any investigating. If you tell me your wallet was stolen, my default reaction is too believe you. But of course I’m obligated to do some fact checking before I write about it in Rolling Stone, especially if I want to implicate someone in the theft.

    As for your second question, if you don’t understand how the reporter or the editors are the most to blame, I suggest carefully reading the Columbia report, which is an independent journalism review. If your son wrote a story based on hearsay in his school paper without any fact-checking and it turned out to be false, I’d say you should hold him responsible – he’s learned a valuable lesson in journalism ethics. And hopefully we hold prominent reporters at high profile national magazines to higher standards than your kid’s school paper.

    *One exception here might be people who spend time working specifically as rape counselors. They purposefully don’t question what is told to them, ever, in order to provide emotional support to people who wish to speak to them. But no one – rape counselors especially – think that the role of rape counselors and the role of journalists, or even of ordinary people, should be the same. Read the article linked by Sigrid above.

  10. Thank you very much. I admit that I don’t read everything posted here, so I am sure I’ve missed the nuances. I thought this would be a good concrete case to pinpoint them. I agree that our default reaction should be one of belief (or if we can’t manufacture the belief, at least our actions should be those that someone who believes would perform). And that we should be sensitive to disconfirming evidence, though I think I’d cast that net a bit more broadly.

    But I’m still dissatisfied with your answer to the second question. I want to hear that you think Jackie did something wrong by fabricating a rape and telling reporters about it, but you still haven’t said that. I think what Jackie did is terrible, and that people will point to this story for years whenever someone says that false accusations are very rare. That’s in large part Jackie’s fault, since she made a false accusation. Suppose I make up a terrible story about you and shop it around to all the major news outlets hoping that one of them bites, and one of them does. Are you more upset with me or with them? I would certainly think both, but primarily me.

  11. You might want to hear me say that Jackie did something wrong, but if so you’re not going to get what you want. And that’s because I’m not in a position to know whether she did anything wrong (or, perhaps better, anything blameworthy). Her false account of rape had bad consequences, for sure – false accounts involving rape often do. But as David says above, the question of whether she is to blame for those bad consequences just isn’t the right question. I suppose that given that what she said is now public record, we can ask whether she’s blameworthy for what she said. And that’s what I think I just don’t know, and what it’s pointless – and, indeed, harmful – to speculate about. I’d have to know all sorts of things I don’t – and can’t and shouldn’t – know about her to know whether she’s blameworthy. I don’t even know whether what she said should be called a lie (for a falsehood to be a lie, we generally think the speaker has to know that it’s false). She might be mentally ill. She might be suffering from severe PTSD after a genuine trauma. Or she might have just made up the entire story for attention – who knows.

    As David says above, the very fact that we are having this conversation, that we are discussing this young woman and her story, is the fault of Rolling Stone. They’re the ones who made her a public figure, which she never should’ve been. And she didn’t ‘shop around’ her story. She told her story to a campus rape advocate, apparently searching for support. That advocate then passed on her story to Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone contacted her, not the other way around. Again, read the Columbia report. RS simply took her story and ran with it, without doing any investigating, despite the fact (as the story Sigrid links to explains very well) people who work with rape victims know their stories are often hazy and inconsistent. Even if part of the story had been true, RS would have needed to do some serious investigation to iron out the details.

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