Only a small portion of the blame belongs to Jackie. I’m not sure what her story is — confused young woman, courageous rape survivor, pathological liar, mentally ill? It doesn’t matter. She apparently has her own life to sort out, and while she has to face consequences for her actions — and she should — she was not the one making the commitment with the reader to tell the truth. She was not the person responsible for giving the story a green light. Rolling Stone is the one who dropped the ball, eventually having to retract its story about a violent gang rape on a college campus. And it’s a shame because the topic is one that needs to be spotlighted.
Instead, the story brings up discussions of shoddy journalism and whether Rolling Stone had an obligation to investigate all sides of the story. Now the naysayers, those who don’t believe rape is a problem in this country, are nodding their heads and saying, “See, told you so. Women lie about rape all the time.”
I don’t believe that for a minute, but Rolling Stone’s decision to use Jackie’s account without fact checking and talking to the accused makes it harder than ever for women to tell their stories. You can’t tell me that during the course of researching this story, the reporter couldn’t find a story about a rape on a college campus that could actually be verified. At least then, we could focus on the issue rather than the holes in the story. Maybe the story wouldn’t have been as sensational, but it would have been the truth.
Here’s the thing. I know how hard it is to get the other side of the story. It is no fun to make that call to the accused and give that person, usually a very angry person, an opportunity to talk. I had to call the home of a teacher accused of inappropriate contact with two students and his MOTHER answered the phone. I thought for sure I was toast; my heart was pounding a hundred miles an hour, waiting for her to let me have it. But she had enough class to say “no comment” and hang up. So I get it, it’s scary. And it’s easy to tell yourself that the accused won’t talk anyway, but that’s not always true. We can’t start with that supposition.
I’ve had people walk into the newsroom with a compelling tale. Journalists are crusaders. We want to right wrongs. So it’s easy to take that story and run with it. But each time we hear these stories, we have to question whether or not they are true. Why? Because our readers will. People lie for all kinds of reasons, and we owe it to our readers to make sure we are sharing the truth. We don’t want egg on our faces when the story ends up being fabricated.
Several years ago, a woman come into the newsroom to talk to me about her son being bullied at school. She seemed credible, and my heart went out to her and her child. I decided to do a story on bullying. I was on very good terms with the principal at that school so when I called about the story, she asked me to come to her office for an off-the record conversation. She laid out some information that she could not share publicly. The mom was in the midst of a custody battle with the boy’s father. She had a history of being bullied herself, based on information she shared when a counselor spoke to her and her son. The principal gave me details about the incident that the mom hadn’t shared, things that made me reconsider the woman’s account. Not that she was lying, but that maybe the stress of her situation was distorting the truth. And the more I listened to the principal’s side, some things the mom had first said to me — things I had initially dismissed — suddenly took on a new focus.
I’m not sure what happened to her son, if anything. But when I left the office that day, I knew this wasn’t a good story to pursue if I wanted to write about bullying in schools. There were questions I couldn’t answer and ultimately it would put her son in a bad spot if his mom’s story wasn’t accurate. All it would take was a few people who worked at the school to poke holes in the story, and it would be a mess. But the only way I would have known was by talking to the other side. After the Rolling Stone story fell apart, the reporter mentioned inconsistencies in the story that she dismissed as not important. Had she spoken to the accused, she may have had second thoughts about the story.
Our credibility is all we have, and we owe it to readers to go into a story prepared to share all sides to the best of our ability, not take the easy route or the option that best fits with the story we want to tell. We have an obligation to thoroughly vet our motivations and our sources before putting a story in print.
It’s frustrating that so much of journalism today is about pushing agendas, finding the most sensational story, and forgoing the presentation of a balanced account in order to be the first with the news. It’s not up to the reporter to tell the reader what to think. The reporter should present the facts — all sides — and let the reader make up his or her own mind. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s the promise we make when we put a story into print or on the air.