Journalism scandals begin with a simple string of gossip, in some cases leading to disaster
November 2014 Rolling Stone published a shocking and sickening article about the gang rape of a student, code named “Jackie,” at the University of Virginia (UVA). The article, “A Rape on Campus,” electrified conversations around the world.
It appeared to expose gross misconduct at the hands of UVA’s administration and a monstrous arrogance in the fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, that Jackie claimed perpetrated the crime.
There was only one problem. The story wasn’t true.
Uneasy skepticism started to emerge as soon as the article was published. Prominent writers criticized the Rolling Stone author, Sabrina Rubin Erdelys’, journalistic methods and UVA students and faculty started to loudly disclaim the legitimacy of their role in Jackie’s story. Because of the growing skepticism surrounding the story, investigative digging from multiple angles into the legitimacy of the scandal began, digging that lead to the eventual conclusion that the story was completely inaccurate.
For the world not directly impacted by the errors in the story, the controversy could have ended there. The crisis would have disappeared from the public eye, as internal investigations began at Rolling Stone, apologies would have been issued, but not noted by the general readers, and writers and editors fired.
And while many of this has occurred, the story has not been hidden away, the Rolling Stone staff desperately attempting to cover up their mistakes. Instead the case has been embraced, by both Rolling Stone and the more general journalistic world, as a stunning example of when journalism fails.
The work that has been done analyzing the Rolling Stone case will serve as both a warning and cautionary tale to future reporters across genres and across mediums far into the future.
Unlike journalistic trials in the past where it was the intent of the author that was worrisome, the question of libel or deliberate falsehood is not raised with the “A Rape on Campus” story, it’s just a question of sloppy journalistic work. And so it is the solution to sloppy mistakes that the analysis of the story hope to uncover.
But why do you care? In cases like this one it’s easy for the public at large to condemn media conglomerates like Rolling Stone as inept, or even, despite the inaccuracy, purposively deceitful. However, the major principle of journalism, seeking the truth in an analytical fashion, is not reserved for the media folk of the world, it is actually meant for us all.
Lessons from journalism
I have been in journalism for all four years of my high school experience; it has taught me how to write in a concise and accurate manner, and illuminated me to multiple other platforms for journalistic thought, such as visual and artistic. However, the greatest life lesson I’m taking away from journalism is the one the Rolling Stone writer failed at.
I’ve learned that it’s not just journalists who should be critical of sources, and desperate for the truth. It’s not just journalists who shouldn’t take things at face value, and instead dedicate time and effort to the discovering the reality of the situation. It’s everyone.
The UVA errors, while drastic and dramatic, are far removed from the day to day life of Minnehaha Academy students. The repercussions of Erdelys’ actions appear to be largely theoretical, a problem perhaps, but not YOUR problem. However, the story is not as foreign as it may first appear to the daily MA life, and the principle I’m championing of analytical truth seeking isn’t either.
The strength of gossip
For example, think of the last rumor you heard. The last bit of vindictive gossip that traveled across the grape vine, perhaps only a few feet away from you, or even through you. Did you pause before repeating the claim to think about its legitimacy? Did you take a moment to decide whether or not your source was believable? Probably not.
And you are in the majority, not many people care enough to think carefully before passing on a fun piece of rumor, or may just be unaware of the possible ramifications of their actions if the gossip isn’t true.
This gossip mill situation, where you are the judge deciding if the wind will continue to spin, seems like a school problem. Or even just a people problem, but it is also the base of the Rolling Stone mess.
The analysis of Rolling Stone’s series of mistakes is centered on this one issue of critical thought. The reporter was attempting to fulfill the principle of discovering and unveiling truth, but in her pursuit failed to fulfill the other half of the equation, she failed to utilize healthy criticism in an effective manner.
When the story came out, the reporter still didn’t even have a name for the boy Jackie claimed led the rape, and she didn’t talk to either of the friends that Jackie claimed to have confided her agony with. Both friends have now revealed to analytic reports that if the reporter would have asked, they could have illuminated the murkiness of the situation, and the probability that Jackie wasn’t telling the truth. At the very least they could have dismantled the tales Jackie told about them, that they were guilty of harsh words to a wounded girl.
All of these missing interviews were missed opportunities for Rolling Stone to check the story. To halt the writing and look for a cleaner tale to tell. However, in the red musk of their good intentions to expose a real threat to girls on college campus, they only hurt the cause. Because now stories that attempt to do the same as “A Rape on Campus,” will be greeted with weary minds, and a world cautious of their legitimacy.
The same phenomenon occurs whenever false rumors are spread. When verification is abandoned as a secondary importance, and one that you have no time for, the results can be irreversibly damaging not just for the people the rumor mentions, but for you as well. It’s the classic case of the boy who cried wolf, lie a few times and soon no one will listen even if the threat becomes real.
Perhaps in high school the majority of gossip is free of physical threat, but the psychological ramifications of any malicious slander is indubitable. Cruel words bring pain, it’s a truth universally acknowledged.
Articles and reports on the Rolling Stone journalistic disaster are still constantly popping up, and the smudge on the magazine’s honor may last forever. But the insightful reporting on the problem, the analysis on the issue, and the illumination of the incredible importance of never shying away from the truth, but never blindly accepting what you appear to be true, is the gem from the articles ashes. A gem for journalists to hold with them as a constant reminder of what they are striving to do, but also a gem for us, the rest of the world, to grasp hold of in our everyday life.
Not only should we seek verification for the things we hear, but we should also continually consider how to minimize harm. Just as journalists must work diligently to create accurate and meaningful work, non-journalists must also keep in mind the power of gossip. Even if the gritty details of a classmate or coworker’s life are true, that doesn’t mean they need to be shared. The impact of words are felt both in what is said and what is not.