By: John Kroll
I read the Columbia Journalism School’s report on the Rolling Stone rape story and was appalled. But in a recent post (bit.ly/1H910HO), I argued that much of the reaction missed the point. Yes, Rolling Stone screwed up. Yes, the reporter and editors violated well-known journalism standards, and their apologies and explanations are unsatisfyingly tepid. But the real story isn’t what happened with this one story; it’s how journalism really works.
On the surface, after all, Rolling Stone did the things our industry claims make our work professional: The reporter interviewed multiple sources. The story went past its primary editor more than once. The two top dogs—managing editor Will Dana and publisher Jann Wenner—read the story before publication. It went to a fact-checker—a procedure theoretically even more rigorous than a newspaper’s copy editing. And it was lawyered.
So how did they screw up so thoroughly?
Compromises were made; an editor used pseudonyms in cases where he and his reporter were aware they didn’t really know who said what.
Hard questions were dodged; the reporter stopped pushing her source because she was afraid of losing the story, and the editor stopped pushing the reporter because, well, it seems because he just got tired of pushing.
Dana and Wenner declined to interrogate the story, saying now that they thought their subordinates took care of such details.
The fact-checker’s concerns were brushed away.
The reporter says she wishes her editor had pushed her more—in other words, she should not be expected to have enough self-motivation to do the job right.
The reporter, her editor, and the fact-checker all say their main source was just ever so believable.
I’ve seen all that before (just not all at once). And more. I’ve seen editors order a story rewritten, or rewrite it themselves, to fit the budget line they promised before reporting began. I’ve seen colleagues excuse away sloppy reporting because they believed the reporter was on the side of right.
What occurred at Rolling Stone was extreme, but not unique. Our industry’s unwillingness to admit how common its flaws are (and were, long before cutbacks) is one reason it struggles in an age of crowd-sourced fact-checking. We can’t blame things on having fewer bodies in the newsrooms: It doesn’t matter how many diligent, determined journalists you put in a room; just one weak link, sufficiently high up the chain, can let bad stories get through. When bad work gets close enough to publication, there is a tendency to circle the wagons.
Here’s where the Rolling Stone mess goes beyond bad journalism and becomes a sin: The collapse of this one story casts doubt on all other reporting about sexual assault. We journalists like to talk about our value to society; this is the flip side. Our errors don’t just affect us.
We do victims of sexual assault no favors when we fail to investigate their stories before publishing them. We know that eyewitness testimony is often flawed. This is true for those who have endured trauma. Isn’t it better to uncover and resolve discrepancies in the reporting, rather than let the victim be picked apart in public?
Consider how many people outside Rolling Stone have been damaged by this epic failure. That’s the sin of sloppy reporting: It causes far more social ill than other ethical lapses, such as plagiarism or removing an errant pair of legs from a photo. We fire plagiarists on the spot and shove photographers out the door for Photoshopping. But sloppy reporting and editing? So far, at least, no one at the magazine is out of a job. What does that tell us about our priorities?
John Kroll teaches journalism at Kent State University. He worked in newsrooms for three decades, most recently as online editor of The Cleveland Plain Dealer.