A Different World

Blog | A real case of liberal media bias: The false UVA gang rape story

FILE - Students participating in rush pass by the Phi Kappa Psi house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., in this Jan. 15, 2015 file photo. Now the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism is about to explain how it all went so wrong. The school's analysis of the editorial process that led to the November 2014 publication of "A Rape on Campus" will be released online at 8 p.m. EDT Sunday April 5, 2015.
FILE - Students participating in rush pass by the Phi Kappa Psi house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., in this Jan. 15, 2015 file photo. Now the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism is about to explain how it all went so wrong. The school's analysis of the editorial process that led to the November 2014 publication of "A Rape on Campus" will be released online at 8 p.m. EDT Sunday April 5, 2015. FILE — AP Photo

Related: It wasn’t Jackie’s responsibility to get the story details right; it was Rolling Stone’s

Related: Report cites multiple failures in Rolling Stone rape article

The phrase “liberal media bias” is often mis- and over-used. It is usually uttered by people who don’t agree with what someone has written or how they’ve written it because it challenges what they absolutely want to believe.

The bias, in those cases, often comes from the reader or viewer, not the producer of the piece - something that’s rarely acknowledged.

In the case of the Rolling Stone magazine article about a false gang rape at University of Virginia, the phrase is apt. It happened because of what can legitimately be called liberal bias in the same way the “60 Minutes” report about Benghazi could be deemed to have been borne of a conservative bias.

Either way you slice it, in each of those instances, sticking to tried-and-true journalistic principles would have prevented both mishaps.

In the case of Rolling Stone, it seems as though the editors and writer determined beforehand what the story would be and went searching for the right way to implement it. That story was that campus rape is on the rise and a crisis, and they needed the right victim with the right story to illustrate what they had determined from the outset as fact.

That was a mistake, as explained by journalism professor Jay Rosen:

5. The most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative and go in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative. The key term is emblematic. The report has too little to say about that fateful decision, probably because it’s not a breach of procedure but standard procedure in magazine-style journalism. (Should it be?) This is my primary criticism of the Columbia report: it has too little to say about the “emblem of…” problem.

6. Not that it’s entirely missing. The basic facts are there:

Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show “what it’s like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture,” according to Erdely’s notes of the conversation.

Idea: Maybe “a single, emblematic college rape case” does not exist. Maybe the hunt for such was ill-conceived from the start. Maybe that’s the wrong way for Rolling Stone to have begun.

Read more about Rosen’s take here.

It’s not wrong to begin with a belief that a certain thing is occurring. That’s natural and can’t realistically be avoided any way. Journalists are thinking, curious people - as they should be - who look to connect the dots in the way most others either ignore or can’t. A real journalistic pursuit means you dig and search for facts that might prove - or disprove - your initial belief. In other words, you take the cliched route, following the facts where they lead you, not the other way around.

I can’t name the number of times I began with a particular belief about a thing, then began digging into the facts and had to abandon the story altogether - a hard, but necessary thing to do - or write precisely the opposite of what I thought I’d find. In that way, journalists are akin to scientists who begin with a hypothesis then try to falsify it.

The hypothesis is the bias - and we all, journalists and news consumers, have them - but basic journalistic principles protect you and those you are writing about.

Rolling Stone short-circuited that process in large part because the writer and editors deferred too much to the supposed victim of the story, relying on her word rather than facts, as well as not following up sensible, basic leads because the alleged victim said she didn’t want them to:

The first misstep during the reporting process, the Columbia report said, was that Ms. Erdely did not seek to independently contact three of Jackie’s friends, who were quoted in the piece, using pseudonyms, expressing trepidation at the idea of Jackie telling the authorities that she had been assaulted. The quotes came from Jackie’s recollection of the conversation. Those friends later cast doubt on Jackie’s story in interviews with The Washington Post and denied saying the words Rolling Stone had attributed to them. The three told the report’s authors that they would have made the same denials to Rolling Stone if they had been contacted.

Read more about that here.

Rape is a sensitive topic that must be handled with care. The instinct to not ‘re-victimize” the victim is a good one. It should make the journalist think through how the story is framed and which words are used. But it should not be a reason to subvert basic journalistic principles.

Journalists must ask tough questions of all sorts of victims on all sorts of sensitive subjects. It’s the only way to get to something that resembles the truth. Some people will take that as a cold-hearted approach and accuse journalists of ugly things. But that is something we simply must do in order to do our jobs well - especially on sensitive subjects, and Rolling Stone clearly didn’t do it in this case.

On the “conservative bias” side is a now-discredited account by “60 Minutes” and what happened during the Benghazi attack. The reporter subverted journalistic principles and skepticism, not to protect a supposed victim, but instead in the pursuit to confirm conservative conspiracy theories about what happened.

In both cases, had strict, well-established journalistic principles been followed, the stories either would have been scrapped entirely or produced to show the complicated truth the facts clearly show they are.

There is a silver lining in all of this. Those awful reports were discovered to be fatally flawed by others who committed to adhering to journalistic principles.

Here’s that bad “60 Minutes” Benghazi report.

Here’s the Columbia Journalism Review’s report about the UVA story.

Here’s a critical look at how Rolling Stone might be mishandling this ‘scandal.’

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