What good journalism doesn't look like

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on December 6, 2014

Many years ago when I was a copy editor/page designer at the North County Times we had a reporter that had gotten an interview that everyone on the San Diego area news media was angling for. A local man had gotten into a serious car accident across the border in Mexico and, because he didn't have Mexican car insurance, the local authorities wouldn't allow him to be transferred to a U.S. hospital for treatment. The man died.

Our reporter was the first one to get an interview with the man's newly widowed wife and turned in 40-some column inches of copy on the interview. It got past the line editor, but when it got to me, I turned to the reporter and said "Wait a minute Tim, this reads like a court transcript. It's dry. Did she pause and break down crying at any point? Did have a hitch in her voice? Did a tear roll down her cheek?"

It's those little details that make really compelling journalism. It's the little stuff that makes the reader feel like they're in the room with the reporter. I can remember writing a long feature on a little old lady who'd been volunteering for decades as a librarian/helper at a local elementary school. She didn't know it, but they were going to name the library after her in a couple weeks, so I was writing our Sunday "People" feature on her and her life. As I interviewed her in her living room, she sat in a chair with her legs over the arm of the chair like a teenager. I made that mention up high in the story and inside was a picture of her seated like that. That little detail really made the story pop.

Which brings us to the University of Virgina gang rape hoax which began to unravel on Friday. The original Rolling Stone story was a case study in bad journalism, whether the original rape claim was true or not—and it appears that if something did happen to "Jackie," it certainly wasn't what Rolling Stone reported.

As the new media began to do what Rolling Stone's fact-checkers should've done before the article ever went to press, it was the little inconsistencies, the details that make a compelling narrative, that make you feel like you were there, that raised the first alarm bells.

The fraternity also said it has reviewed the roster of employees at the university’s Aquatic and Fitness Center for 2012 and found that it does not include a member of the fraternity — a detail Jackie provided in her account to Rolling Stone and in interviews with The Post — and that no member of the house matches the description detailed in the Rolling Stone account. The statement also said that the house does not have pledges during the fall semester.

It's that last sentence that really jumped out at me. There's no fraternity rush in the fall. There are no pledges in the fall. Yet that's when "Jackie" claims she was gang raped as part of some fraternity ritual. It's something that would quickly become apparent if you were a reporter on the U Va. campus and you talked to fraternity members—any fraternity members—during fall term.

It reminded me of the movie "Shattered Glass" about New Republic writer Stephen Glass, a confessed fabulist.

Despite frantic attempts at spin from (Stephen) Glass, (Charles) Lane discovers that the convention room at the hotel was not open the day the convention supposedly took place and that the restaurant where they supposedly ate dinner closed in the early afternoon.

It happens over and over again. The little details, whether it's when fraternities rush or if a restaurant isn't open for dinner, are what make or break stories like this. They can provide a compelling narrative, or they can reveal where a reporter's taken shortcuts, relied on a dishonest source, or fabricated incidents from whole cloth.

As of today, the Rolling Stone story is in some odd limbo state. The editor's apologized for the story, but hasn't retracted it.

It's possible "Jackie" was raped that night back in 2012. But it's also pretty apparent that, if she was, it didn't happen as she described it to Rolling Stone.

But the worst offender in this whole situation is the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdley.

Magazine writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely knew she wanted to write about sexual assaults at an elite university. What she didn’t know was which university.

So, for six weeks starting in June, Erdely interviewed students from across the country. She talked to people at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. None of those schools felt quite right. But one did: the University of Virginia, a public school, Southern and genteel, brimming with what Erdely calls “super-smart kids” and steeped in the legacy of its founder, Thomas Jefferson.

So, she had an idea: There's a "rape culture" that permeates American Universities. And then she went from school to school to school until she found someone who'd tell her a truly shocking story that would get her piece on the cover of Rolling Stone. It couldn't be just a "rape," it had to be a "gang rape" as part of a fraternity initiation. Not something that happens to poor women in high crime areas on a daily basis, but something that could happen to someone like her. Someone like the readers of Rolling Stone.

I don't know if Erdely consciously coached "Jackie," or if her prodding and questions was akin to the child sex scandals so prevalent in the 1990s where poorly trained cops and psychologists encouraged children to spin wild tales of torture and sex abuse that to a sane observer obviously couldn't be true. Whatever the case, Erdely obviously so wanted "Jackie's" claims to be outrageous and true that any normal journalistic skepticism was quickly and effectively suppressed.

And like the child sex scandals of the '90s, the media and ivory tower elites are telling us again that children and women don't lie about these things—and if you question any specific rape claims, then you're somehow questioning whether rape ever occurs.

Journalism. Wound. Self-inflicted.

One comment on “What good journalism doesn't look like”

  1. As I commented on the NY Times website regarding this sorry episode in journalism history, there are too many journalists and editors who are intoxicated by the power of the forum in which they ply their craft, without any appreciation for the significant responsibility that goes along with it.

    This is a function of the state of journalism, post-Watergate. Instead of seeing the press's role in Watergate in the proper context - intelligent, dogged reporters, guided by a seasoned and disciplined editor, tirelessly and meticulously gathering facts - Woodward and Bernstein wannabees only saw the end result, the press having so much power that it could take down a Presidency. Thus, too many practitioners today want to apply that power without having the emotional maturity to conduct themselves responsibly.


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