Saturday, April 25, 2015

Rolling Stones Rape of Reportage & Journalistic Ethics

Image credit: KFOR.com
"In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work."
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Last year, Rolling Stone published a sensational cover story about a brutal gang rape on the University of Virginia campus. The details of the crime itself were horrific and inhuman but what made it more alarming was the magazine’s claim that university authorities, even friends and family of the rape victim, had all turned a blind eye to her claim. 

The article resulted in a public apology from the University, a closing down of the fraternity where the gang rape transpired and a police investigation into the crime. The only problem with Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus“is that it turns out to be largely a fabrication. The police investigation found no evidence that the events described by Jackie, the victim, actually occurred.

The Washington Post and CNN were the first to cast serious doubts about the story, based not on their own investigating, but on noticing that the most simple and basic tenants of journalism seemed to have been ignored in the reportage. They quickly concluded that major parts of Jackie’s account of the horrific events did not add up. 

For example, the fraternity in question did not host a party on the evening the alleged gang rape took place. Also, Jackie’s friends, who helped her that evening, were never interviewed and told the Washington Post that they doubted most of the story because while Jackie had appeared visibly shaken there were no signs of the serious physical injuries (as Jackie has stated in the article). Finally, it turns out the reporter had made no attempt to speak to any of the alleged perpetrators; if she had, she would have found that one prime accused, Jackie had named, did not even belong to the fraternity in question. (Source: Washington Post article).

This whole thing goes far beyond a simple lapse in judgement and incompetence. Based on the available facts it is pretty clear that Rolling Stone’s editorial staff made a conscious decision to run with the story purely for the “sensational” aspects; and to fit a narrative that they were trying to create about sexual abuse on US college campuses. In doing so they chose to forgo the most basic tenets of journalism: fact checking, investigating, and corroborating to ensure the integrity of the storyteller, all with a healthy dose of skepticism that every journalist is meant to have. 

None of this is about disrespecting a rape victim or doubting her story – it is simply about being thorough and finding the truth. Frankly, Rolling Stone's reaction and lack of action after the fact is even more egregious and shocking; rather than take serious action, change processes, procedure and fire all those involved, they have instead tried to absolve themselves of blame at every juncture.

First, as the story began to unravel, Rolling Stone Editor Will Dana’s reaction was to immediately blame the victim. He said “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced,” (Source: Daily Beast article). 

The reporter who penned the story also seems to apportion blame to some warped notion of political correctness of not questioning a rape victim. She recently told the New York Times that “I allowed my concern for Jackie’s well-being, my fear of re-traumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts…” (Source: The Wrap article). 

Now, after the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism published a scathing investigative report (Read report: ‘A failure that was avoidable’) citing a complete failure of journalism; Rolling Stone has decided that not only will nobody be fired, but that “Rolling Stone’s senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems” (Source: Daily Beast article). The magazine’s publisher, Jann S. Wenner, while acknowledging “flaws” in the piece, also told the New York Times that “it represented an isolated and unusual episode". He went on to blame Jackie when he added that “The problems with the article started with its source, Mr. Wenner said. He described her as “a really expert fabulist storyteller” who managed to manipulate the magazine’s journalism process.” (Source: Al Jazeera America article).

“The journalist places the public good above all else and uses certain methods – the foundation of which is a discipline of verification…” Journalism attempts to be fair and accurate. It does this through objective methods and managing bias” (Source: API website). As a blogger, which the American Press Institute states are not considered journalists, I take great pains to check my facts and always look for credible sources to verify them because the internet is full of “facts” that can be found to fit any narrative. 

A free and independent press is considered one of the fundamentals of a successful and strong democracy. Journalists are meant to hold a mirror to society, and in doing so, make us accountable for our actions. They are meant to do this without bias or prejudice and by reporting the facts. Conversely, credibility and trust are the bedrocks of a free press and something that each publication must strive to earn from readers, not take for granted.

I have always maintained that it is not so much the fact that human beings make mistakes, but how they behave after they have been caught that counts more. People and organisation’s actions after the fact are a better gauge of their integrity and depth of character. Rolling Stone has failed miserably on all counts because an apology is meaningless without the accountability of those involved facing consequences for their actions. It is clear that Rolling Stone believes that the people tasked with holding society accountable are not themselves accountable to the society they serve.
 

2 comments:

  1. Yet another example of journalism standards going down the drain

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  2. Unfortunately, the demise of thorough investigative journalism has long been buried. Those who are courageous and dare to go above and beyond are always somehow muffled.

    ReplyDelete