This article originally appeared in the April 11, 2015 edition of the Wise County Messenger. Photo found here.
Most people have nightmares about dying or falling or clowns or whatever it is that other people are scared of. I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes wondering if I misspelled a councilman’s name in a story or if I didn’t add up the right budget numbers.
I can still remember the first factual error I ever made as a journalism student. I was reporting on a student board group that eliminated another student’s seat in order to make sure there wouldn’t be a tie if the board voted on something. The student that was eliminated was a minority, hence the need for more coverage than usual.
I had everything right, except for one thing.
I said the student body president was a junior when he was really a senior. For that, my professor knocked 50 points off my grade, and no matter how hard I tried, I only made it out of that class with a B+.
I was reminded of this incident this week when I read Columbia University’s takedown of Rolling Stone’s story, “A Rape on Campus,” that ran in its Dec. 4 edition.
For those that haven’t heard, last November, Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely heard the story of a University of Virginia student named “Jackie,” who claimed to have been sexually assaulted in 2012 as part of a sadistic fraternity hazing incident at a party. The story was graphic, sensational and well-written. It was also being called into question before the magazine even hit the newsstands.
Notice I said well-written, not well-reported.
Several news organizations were attacking the story from the get-go, citing its sensational imagery, misleading quotes and lack of statement from the alleged rapist. It didn’t help when Jackie told Erdely that she couldn’t remember her assailant’s last name.
Then when the fraternity came out with a statement saying they never hosted an event on the dates in question, nor did they ever have a member with the name of the alleged assailant, things got worse.
The day the story was published, Rolling Stone issued a retraction amid the Washington Post calling the magazine out on its lackluster fact-checking. You can read it here:wcmess.com/rollingstone.
What Rolling Stone did was more than just misspell a name. They blatantly refused to take any sort of responsibility for the way that the story was handled.
This month, Columbia University released its investigation of how the reporting went wrong. Billed as a “piece of journalism about a failure of journalism,” the original story and its aftermath will be j-school staples for years to come.
This debacle is every reporter’s absolute worst nightmare, but perhaps the worst error Rolling Stone made was not firing anyone associated with crafting the article. Erdely was not fired and neither was Will Dana, the managing editor. None of the fact-checkers lost their jobs either. The editors blamed the fact checkers, Erdely and Jackie. Erdely said she wished the editors would have pushed her harder to find sources.
The Columbia investigation is thorough and well-written, but it’s a shame it was even needed. The original story should have never been allowed to run.
What’s worse is that just because Erdely didn’t do her job right, it doesn’t mean that something might not have happened to Jackie that night. Now if either of them ever make any claims, it will have to be fact-checked rigorously. It’s bad for them, and it’s bad for the journalism industry.
Hard-hitting, well-thought out investigative journalism has long been a staple of the profession, but if it’s not done right, nobody’s going to take it seriously. Most people already think journalists distort the truth for their own motives. All Rolling Stone has done is perpetuate that stereotype.
If I ever make an error that big, I hope I get fired, because I’ll deserve it.
Jake Harris is a Messenger reporter.