Rape, Cosby and UVA

A story in Rolling Stone featured the alleged gang rape of a University of Virginia student, launching calls for reform and more attention to the issue of sexual assaults on campus. Recent reporting by the Washington Post, however, has raised doubts about the veracity of the story.
Fraternity house named in alleged rapes (Ryan M. Kelly, The Daily Progress/AP file)

How aggressively did journalists pursue the facts?

By Casey Bukro

Rape became big news with allegations against Comedian Bill Cosby and an explosive Rolling Stone story describing a gang rape of a co-ed at a fraternity house on the University of Virginia campus, for which editors later apologized for “discrepancies.”

Both rape stories raised questions about how journalism works in America and whether it can be trusted.

Where were the editors while these stories were being covered? Tough editors ask tough questions, and demand answers from their own reporters about how they got the story and whether it’s supported by hard investigation.

Media are accused of failing to dig into serial rape accusations over decades against Cosby, who was seen as a popular father figure as he was portrayed on his television show.

About 20 women have accused Cosby of drugging them, and often raping them. But he has not answered to what he calls “innuendos.” Some of the accusers have been challenged. Cosby’s most recent comment is that his wife is dealing well with the controversy.

Pushing back, Cosby’s lawyer accuses a reporter of deception, and his wife, Camille, contends the media failed to take a close look at her husband’s accusers.

The Rolling Stone gang rape story by Sabrina Rubin Erdely is based on a single source, a woman identified only as “Jackie,” who claimed she was lured to a 2012 fraternity party by a man named “Drew,” and raped by seven men. The Washington Post described the story.

Good reporting usually involves getting all sides of the story. Erdely admitted that she made a deal with Jackie that no attempt would be made to find and interview anyone else involved in the alleged rape, or knew about it.  And her editors allowed her to get away with a violation of a basic tenet of good reporting – getting multiple sources to verify the accuracy of the story

The editors allowed this unusual dispensation from careful reporting because the story was “sensitive.” Yes, rape is a sensitive issue, but not a reason to suspend professional standards in reporting. Sensitive stories require more careful reporting, not less.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics urges caution in reporting sex crimes.

The story was widely reported and put a spotlight on campus rape. Then came questions about its accuracy. The accused fraternity had no party on the night the rape allegedly happened, and issued a statement saying that sexual assault was not “part of our pledging or initiation process.” It appeared to be fabricated and continues to be called into question from many sources.

Media followed the story as a lesson in journalism and ethics. A defamation suit against Rolling Stone is a possibility.

Rolling Stone’s managing editor, Will Dana, issued a statement:  “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.”

Other media noticed the discrepancies. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Columnist Jack Kelly calls the story “an unforgivable breach of journalism ethics” and thinks the fraternity house should sue Erdely and Rolling Stone for libel.

Rolling Stone editors believed Jackie was credible, according to Leslie Loftis in the Columbia Journalism Review,  because of a bias – a willingness to believe Jackie because “everyone knows that there is an epidemic of rape on campuses around the country….”

It’s what you know, or want to believe, that can set a trap.

The editors at the Washington Post wanted to believe one of their bright and upcoming reporters, Janet Cooke. She wrote “Jimmy’s World,” a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict in a family of addicts. Narcotics addiction was a big issue in 1980.

That story was so good, it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

Then came the questions. A Washington Post editor asked Cooke to get in a car and go with him to identify where Jimmy lived. They drove around and could find no Jimmy. Cooke eventually admitted she invented Jimmy.

Cooke said the Post’s high-pressure newsroom corrupted her judgement. She said she had heard about somebody like Jimmy. She decided to write the story, based on anonymous sources, to satisfy her editors, she said.

The Post’s ombudsman wrote a long critique on the “Jimmy’s World” story, and found that the editors bore heavy responsibility, adding that “everybody who touched this journalistic felony was wrong.”

Good editors are supposed to do the hard work of keeping stories honest.

“Don’t tell me what you think, chum. Tell me what you know!” said a fabled, crusty editor at the former City News Bureau of Chicago, once called the Devils Island of Journalism. He grilled his reporters as vigorously as he expected his reporters to grill their sources.

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