In most media scandals, it's unfair to paint with such a broad brush. When
That's not the case with Rolling Stone's publication of "A Rape on Campus," the story of the brutal gang rape of a student named "Jackie" at the
The best thing you can say about this fiasco is that there was little deliberate lying involved. According to an exhaustive report by the
Of course, this is faint praise. The field of journalistic ethics can get ridiculously Talmudic. But it's all based on a very simple rule: Tell the truth. If the truth is unclear, tell what you know and give both sides (or as many credible sides to a story as might exist) an opportunity to make their case. (For opinion journalists, like yours truly, the rule is even easier: Don't say anything you don't believe.)
Rolling Stone ignored this basic rule. At every stage, editors and reporters knew what they should do: Talk to the accused rapists, confirm the identities and testimony of alleged witnesses, give the
And, at almost every turn, they collectively went another way, caving to Jackie's refusal to help confirm her story.
"The problem of confirmation bias -- the tendency of people to be trapped by pre-existing assumptions and to select facts that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones -- is a well-established finding of social science,"
Rolling Stone screwed up.
"Seems to be a factor" strikes me as the mother of all understatements. Erdely says she went looking for a case study that perfectly exemplified what she set out to find. At UVA, carefully selected as the kind of school she wanted to expose, she asked activists for a Jackie-like story and they gave her exactly what she was looking for.
I didn't believe the story the first time I read it, and said so in this space early on, to the outrage of many. I'm not in the practice of casting doubt on rape stories (nor are the other skeptics who declined to be swept up in the hysteria the story generated), but it just seemed obvious in myriad ways that this story was too "good" to be true.
Rolling Stone, however, instantly believed Jackie's incredible story about a group of men brazenly plotting a felony, never mind a horrendously evil act. Erdely and her editors also convinced themselves that university administrators would callously ignore such an act and that the atmosphere was so poisonous at UVA that even Jackie's friends cared more about attending frat parties (where brutal gang rapes allegedly were part of initiations) than calling the police. When the story began to unravel, Erdely told skeptics not to get "sidetracked" from the "overarching point of the article." What mattered to Erdely, the editors and the activists was the "rape crisis" narrative, not the facts. Put the system on trial, damn the evidence. Perhaps that's why, even now, Erdely won't apologize to the fraternity members she slandered -- they're still the villains (though fear of a lawsuit might be a factor, too).