The rolling destruction of Rolling Stone’s campus rape investigative report – centered on a woman named Jackie whose story of a gang rape at the University of Virginia just didn’t hold up – is both horrifying and fascinating to watch. Especially if you’re in the journalism world and know how easy it is to really, really mess things up.
I had a friend at the newspaper in Rochester, N.Y., many years ago whose father had been in World War II and, a propos of incoming artillery rounds, he offered his son this life lesson: “It’s the one you don’t hear that gets you.” I think this means that if you hear an incoming shell, it is going to land somewhere nearby, but if it is coming straight down on your head the aerodynamics are such that you won’t hear it. Or maybe it just means that you don’t hear it land, because it landed on you!
Either way, my friend was using this to make the journalistic point that you can try mightily to avoid serious mistakes and then one lands right on you that you never saw coming. I think a lot of journalists would agree that often it is not the big investigative piece that causes the worst problems, but the piddly little review in the same issue that said the local restaurant used beef that was “obviously less than prime.” If the chef has the receipts for the Grade A steak, you are in big trouble. (Which is why it is always better in a situation like that to go for opinion – “The steak, which was advertised as prime, nonetheless tasted like shoe leather.” That’s protected speech.)
Rolling Stone (I'm a lifelong fan, see my framed 1978 Dylan cover at right) definitely got hit by one they never saw coming, and it was not on a piddly little story at all. Sensitive to handling a rape allegation and not further traumatizing the victim, putting their confidence in a writer with a good track record, and – perhaps – subject to a confirmation bias that frat boys at southern universities are capable of all manner of evil, they simply didn’t see the peril. By not talking to the alleged rapists, and not even to her friends, the whole thing came down to reliance on one version of events.
It would have been so easy to avoid, in retrospect. All you needed was the article editor or the copy editor to ask, did we talk to her friends? (let alone the alleged attackers), followed by a memo to the boss: Questions on Rape Story -- Needs to Hold.
Rolling Stone’s agony reminds me of our duty here at AOA to respect facts and fairness. We are in fact advocacy journalists – we come from a point of view, based on our own research, reporting, and experience – but within that framework we try to be journalistically scrupulous. That’s not to say we’re perfect – and with a blog format, multiple contributors, a mission we champion, and constant battering from people on all sides who can’t bear the fact that we’re right – we have to be extra vigilant. But we do insist on facts. We come up against stories all the time where we need to assess the strength of the evidence and report what we find. Although our critics like to think we just wing it, they would probably be surprised at how much checking and care goes into what we do. Two examples come to mind.
One of the reports I’m proudest of was about the treatment of Alex Spourdalakis. Most of you know that story, and its tragic end. But it began as an e-mail on a Friday night – March 7, 2013 -- from Lisa Goes, one of our contributing editors, describing this god-awful situation and providing photos to go with it. Because of its significance – and, frankly, because I hate getting scooped – we wanted to publish it right away, which we did. Lisa’s e-mail was titled:
“SUBMISSION: Urgent need hoping you find this worth running”
To which I responded: “Wow, very disturbing and powerful. Kim I'd suggest we post this as soon as we have all the pieces together from Lisa, whether on the weekend or not. … an urgent outrage. I'm sure this happens all the time but it is rare to see it so vividly documented in real time.”
And Kim: “OK, having read this and grateful not to have had breakfast first, I’ve prepped the post”
And me: “One of the very best pieces we ever ran or ever will”
There were lots of e-mails in between – does the mom know we are doing this, what does the hospital say, and so on – that were all nailed down. Still, if anything significant about this story had been flat-out wrong, it would have been Rolling Stone-level bad news for us. But it held up, because Lisa was there, she had the evidence, and even while outraged she stuck to the facts. You can see the differences here with Rolling Stone's story. Still, when you hit that publish button, you say a little prayer to the journalism gods to protect you one more time.
Another case in point was the news that Poul Thorsen, late of the CDC, was being investigated for fraud and theft of agency funds. This one was almost too good to be true – which ought to make an editor extra-cautious. To tell you the truth, I had never registered the name Poul Thorsen when this came up, but Mark Blaxill certainly had.
On March 5, 2010, I got an e-mail from a colleague in Denmark with the unpromising title VS:SV. The text said: “Please see the attached file. Kind regards.” Thank God I opened it. It was a letter from Aarhus University in Denmark outlining Thorsen's alleged misdeeds. I forwarded it to Mark Blaxill, who fired back a note, "This is amazing. I’m writing a short piece right now.” A little later he e-mailed, “Can we verify this somehow? I’ve been looking on the Aarhus web-site and can’t find anything.”
Me: “in this situation you can say that it could not be independently verified but ... it appeared to be a statement on aarhaus university's letterhead.”
Mark: “Seems like Jorgen Jorgensen [author of the letter] does exist and is in the role claimed in the letter”
Me: “yes, and here's what appears to be a danish mainstream paper discussing the issue last month without naming thorsen. we're definitely protected legally here ...”
And so we posted the story a short time later. Over on the skeptic blogs, there was discussion for days about whether the letter was a fake, oblivious to the kind of crosschecking we had already done and lacking the skills, or perhaps the motivation, to do it themselves.
Still, the story was almost literally unbelievable. After we published it, David Kirby – who has a solid journalism background – e-mailed, “Are we sure the document is authentic?”
To which Mark responded: “Dan received the document from a contact in Denmark who alerted him to the story. [She also posted it on her small blog.] I've checked and confirmed that Jorgen Jorgensen does exist and is in the role claimed in the letter. I haven't seen anything on the Aarhus web-site about this. We do have confirmation (see attached) that this has been covered in the Danish press. The early report from the Copenhagen Post doesn't mention Thorsen by name, but based on what I had seen as of yesterday, I predicted it was Thorsen. So seeing this letter naming Thorsen is consistent with everything we know."
I added: “i have a high degree of confidence in its authenticity, given the mainstream reporting in denmark in the past few weeks that matches what the memo said.”
Notice the phrase, “A high degree of confidence.” That is what we were working with at the time. Today, of course, we are certain it is authentic, but in real time you have to constantly assess the possibility that something is amiss versus the possibility of missing the story altogether. In that circumstance, having a high degree of confidence was sufficient for publication. If you had to be certain, you’d get scooped every time. Which makes this such an interesting business.
So this is the kind of thing that goes into our news coverage and analysis here at our humble web site. I would like to think that this kind of collaborative and cautious editing would have saved Rolling Stone, although, as my friend’s said, it’s the one you don’t hear that gets you.
There’s another reason to care about facts and Rolling Stone – it published Bobby Kennedy’s Deadly Immunity, which required some corrections. I said at the time that these were the kind of things that a good fact-checking operation could and should have caught. Bobby’s basic thesis was incontrovertible, but the relatively picayune fact errors were enough to allow some to divert attention from that. Rolling Stone, to its eternal credit, refused to retract the piece after Salon did so. But the Kennedy saga and the Rape on Campus story suggest they might have a systemic problem with rigorous fact-checking and asking the kind of fail-safe (one of my editors called it “bomb-proofing”) questions that can keep the shell from landing smack on top of you.
So, hey, Rolling Stone, deconstruct how you screwed up, get yourself a couple of cranky and skeptical copy editors, the old-fashioned kind who go out back to smoke and probably drink at lunch. And rock on! We need you, bro.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.