John Kroll (rightly) calls the story “appalling,” yet he feels that much of the reaction to the Columbia Journalism School’s report on the Rolling Stone rape story “missed the point.”
He claims that “the real story isn’t what happened with this one story; it’s how journalism really works.”
“On the surface, after all, Rolling Stone did the things our industry claims make our work professional: The reporter interviewed multiple sources. The story went past its primary editor more than once. The two top dogs—managing editor Will Dana and publisher Jann Wenner—read the story before publication. It went to a fact-checker—a procedure theoretically even more rigorous than a newspaper’s copy editing. And it was lawyered.
“So how did they screw up so thoroughly?” Kroll asks.
It’s a valid question, and as Kroll notes, it points to the larger question of journalism and its role in our society.
“Our industry’s unwillingness to admit how common its flaws are (and were, long before cutbacks) is one reason it struggles in an age of crowd-sourced fact-checking. We can’t blame things on having fewer bodies in the newsrooms: It doesn’t matter how many diligent, determined journalists you put in a room; just one weak link, sufficiently high up the chain, can let bad stories get through. When bad work gets close enough to publication, there is a tendency to circle the wagons.
“Here’s where the Rolling Stone mess goes beyond bad journalism and becomes a sin: The collapse of this one story casts doubt on all other reporting about sexual assault. We journalists like to talk about our value to society; this is the flip side. Our errors don’t just affect us.”
True and powerful words from a seasoned industry veteran, and a sobering lesson for anyone in journalism today.