Rolling-Stone-LOGO-2

On Rolling Stone, lessons from fact-checking, and the limits of journalism

It was as both a feminist and former fact-checker that I watched with rage on Friday as Rolling Stone distanced themselves from the account of a gang rape at UVA they published last month, covering for their own journalistic missteps by throwing Jackie, the rape survivor at the center of the piece, under the bus. And the rage is only growing as many of the journalists now rushing to condemn Rolling Stone are starting to spin a tale of how a “Believe the Victims” mentality got in the way of good journalism in this case. Feminism’s to blame, as always.

This weekend, I wrote 3,000 words about this debacle from my perspective as a feminist and fact-checker. About everything Rolling Stone did wrong and everything that’s wrong with the conversation we’re having about it now. In the end, I looked at them, all these fucking words about journalistic standards and the purpose of fact-checking and blah blah blah, and realized that to say what I had to say about what is wrong here I would need thousands more because here I was writing about journalism, while Jackie was getting doxxed and on some college campus — or off some college campus — somewhere in this country another girl was being raped.

So instead of saying the million things, I’ll try to say just one. Or a couple.

In their statement, Rolling Stone admits to just one mistake: agreeing to honor Jackie’s request that they not contact the accused men because she feared retaliation. They write, “We should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story.” That’s not actually a full accounting of their failure here. In reality, Rolling Stone not only didn’t contact the men, as Jackie requested, but also seems to have not done anything else to verify the most basic factual details of Jackie’s account and also wasn’t transparent about what they had and hadn’t been able to independently verify. In doing so, they failed to uncover the discrepancies in Jackie’s account before it was published — discrepancies, mind you, that are the kind of discrepancies you’d expect to find when fact-checking a first-person account of a traumatic rape survivor and that in no way offer damning evidence that her whole account is not true. In doing so, they left Jackie without the primary benefit — the tremendous gift — that the fact-checking process gives to journalists and their sources: the assurance that if the story is challenged — and Rolling Stone had to have anticipated it would be because rape survivors are always, always doubted — an institution has your back. It was as much a feminist failure as it was a journalistic one that they didn’t do their due diligence to ensure they were ready to stand by Jackie when the inevitable happened.

But what I really want to talk about is the explanation that is emerging in the media world for this royal fuckup. Rolling Stone themselves offered up an appealing scapegoat: Jackie. Especially in their original statement, which has now been edited, Rolling Stone shamefully tried to lay their journalistic failures on their source, saying they had “trusted” Jackie’s account and found their “trust in her was misplaced.” (They’ve now edited the statement to acknowledge that their mistakes were their own, not Jackie’s.) I’d argue they also implicitly scapegoat feminism — with its “sensitivity” to survivor’s needs and tendency to “believe survivors” as the default. After all, as anyone who has worked in journalism knows, your “trust” in a source doesn’t actually have anything at all do with how you go about fact-checking a piece. The first rule of fact-checking is never “trust” anything — not your reporters, not the spelling of your own name, not whether the sky is blue. No, the problem was that Rolling Stone decided to “make a judgement” to ditch their normal — and, by all accounts, normally very rigorous — fact-checking process because they were “trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault.”

And now all the journalists falling over themselves in their rush to condemn Rolling Stone will likely pick up on that thread and run with it, telling various versions of a story that pits some imagined “good feminist” position of “believing the survivor” against the “good journalist” position of questioning everything, of being skeptical, of verify-verify-verify. They will get on their high horses and conclude that Rolling Stone’s failure here is a good reminder of the risks of a writer “getting too close” to a source or only telling “one side of the story” or having “poisonous biases” (a bias against “elitist fraternity culture” in that particular example — apparently that’s a thing). The media, by and large, will be content — and some, of course, will be downright gleeful — to conclude that it was an encroachment of feminist ethics — a knee-jerk “Believe the Victims” mentality — that poisoned the hallowed integrity of journalism in this disastrous case.

I learned to fact-check at a publication that is one of the best in the business, and I was good at the job. (Feel free to fact-check that claim.)

Fact-checking taught me a lot, and here’s one thing I learned: One of the main purposes of fact-checking is to correct journalism’s bias toward a “good story” above all else. While journalism is sometimes willing to acknowledge that journalists, just like everyone else, bring individual perspectives and prejudices to their work, it doesn’t much like to cop to this general bias, since, while it can be partially checked by responsible reporting and rigorous fact-checking, it’s inherent to the form. A compelling, clean narrative is seductive to both writers and editors, and one of the main duties of a fact-checker is to fight that bias in themselves in order to balance the tendency toward dramatic arcs, villains and heroes, and neat conclusions — to constantly re-inject inconvenient nuance, to keep adding the jagged edges when everyone else involved in the process would ideally love to see them smoothed.

Most importantly — in my opinion, at least — fact-checkers work to protect the integrity of sources’ stories against this bias. Journalists are storytellers who use other people’s stories to build their own. In doing so, they chop up other people’s truths, make them incomplete, and put them in service of their own overall narrative. That’s not a criticism of journalists, most of whom, in my experience, care deeply about responsibly representing their sources — it’s just the way journalism works. At its best, this process produces a story that tells a bigger truth than any of the partial truths that make it up. But in weaving their narrative, journalists always hold rather terrifying power to transform other people’s truths. Simply by how they choose to tell the larger story — what’s included and excluded, every tiny decision about how it’s framed — they can flatten the richness of lives, warp the meaning of words, gut so much of the context from someone’s story that it may be technically true but no longer, really, the truth. Again, this is inherent to journalism — the writing and editing process inevitably bends the meaning of the sources’ stories to support the journalist’s story — and part of a fact-checker’s work is to ensure that the tyranny of the overall narrative never fatally injures the basic truth of the individual stories it subsumes. I found it to be a very stressful, but rewarding, job.

The Washington Post has reported that Jackie said she felt “manipulated” by writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely and said that at one point she asked to be taken out of the article and Erdely refused. If that’s true, that’s a clear violation of ethical journalism guidelines for reporting on sexual assault. If that’s true, that failure by Rolling Stone is worse than any of the many failures that came after it. And if Rolling Stone was so eager to keep Jackie’s story in the piece that they were ready to run it against her will, that suggests their willingness to bend their fact-checking standards may have had less to do with some feminist “sensitivity” to a survivor’s request and more to do with not wanting to risk losing a particularly shocking tale of a gang rape that would help their article go viral in the way it ultimately did.

I do not know if that’s the case — perhaps Rolling Stone genuinely, if very mistakenly, believed they were doing the right thing for the right reason — but I think it’s plausible, and I’d like to see all the journalists rushing to pontificate about how to do “good reporting” on sexual violence acknowledge the possibility that it was journalism’s bias towards a good story that’s to blame here. That in chasing the “perfect victim,” Rolling Stone pressured a traumatized rape survivor to tell her story, ditched their fact-checking standards, and then threw her under the bus when the account — totally predictably — was challenged.

But, of course, the one thing that journalism refuses to question is its own ability to reveal the truth. It clings fast to its central conceit: that it has no biases of its own, and if followed correctly, its standards and conventions are enough to magically correct our cultural biases and lead us to some “objective” truth — or at least get us closer than anything else will.

And so Hanna Rosin writes that when survivors strike deals like Jackie’s with the media to maintain control over their narratives, “this creates an impossible situation for journalists,” without really acknowledging the fact that survivors have very good reasons to be protective of their stories. And Rolling Stone writes that they shouldn’t have made such an agreement with Jackie and tried harder to “convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story” — and does not seem to realize that it is this framing — this simplistic and false equation that says “the truth” must lie somewhere in between a rape survivor’s account and “the other side of the story” — that was likely the problem.

Roxane Gay wrote recently, “As a culture, we don’t seem to know how to hear stories about rape and sexual violence.” It’s possible we also live in a culture where journalism is not equipped to tell them.

It’s possible that so long as journalism insists on some fiction of objectivity and refuses to really own up to its bias, the full and awful truth of sexual violence will continue to slip through its attempts to capture it. It’s possible the truth of sexual violence is too big — that it is too pervasive, too normalized within the culture, too deeply embedded in our most intimate relationships — to be counted by journalism’s statistics and illustrative anecdotes. It’s possible that the truth of sexual violence is too messy to fit within journalism’s narrative preference for perfect victims and villains. It’s possible we, as a culture, have too much invested in not believing the truth of sexual violence, and that until that changes, the risks survivors take by trusting their stories to journalism — to its limited tools for getting at the truth in which it is arrogantly overconfident — are just too great.

I believe in journalism. I believe it in for the same reason I believe in feminism. Because, at their best, both do aim to tell the truth about this terrible, beautiful, complex world. But journalism can lie, just as feminism can lie, because they are both created by the fallible humans who live in it. And journalism lies far more than feminism does about the nature of the truth. Journalism lies and acts as if it’s the only game in town — as if it is not just one of many ways of telling the truth.

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

Read more about Maya

Join the Conversation