behind the news

How to handle a story correction

Rolling Stone needs a transparency lesson
December 10, 2014

Rolling Stone has been in deep water this week, as journalists eviscerate the outlet for failing to fully vet the narrative thread for “A Rape on Campus,” a November story on the University of Virginia’s culture of silence surrounding sexual assault. With the Washington Post leading the effort, various outlets have ripped apart the story as told by “Jackie,” a UVA freshman, who alleges that she was viciously assaulted and raped by several men at a frat party. The Post‘s reporting has found a slew of inaccuracies within the story’s details.

And Rolling Stone’s subsequent apology is doing nothing to restore confidence in its critics and readers. Written by managing editor Will Dana, the short note first blamed Jackie, writing that “our trust in her was misplaced.” Then he backtracked, updating the apology to make clear that it was Rolling Stone‘s fault for not checking out her story. The post has been updated, with no disclosure of the changes, several times since. But rather than tweaking an apology in response to the findings of other media organizations, past mea culpas suggest that Rolling Stone would be best served by launching its own investigation from the get-go.

Exhibit A, as Margaret Sullivan noted in a column on Monday, was how The New York Times moved beyond the 2003 Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal by conducting its own reporting into how it happened. “The Times published a very extensive investigation of what allowed a rogue reporter to fabricate and plagiarize for months,” she wrote. “And although the Blair crisis was a major factor in bringing down an editor and a managing editor, the paper’s reforms (including but certainly not limited to the establishment of a public editor) have helped prevent a recurrence.”

Full transparency–which includes researching the extent of inaccuracies and disclosing the editorial practices that allowed them to occur–is even more important in a digital culture, when the story of journalism-gone-wrong can go viral before the offending organization has a chance to address it. When Forbes writer Adam Penenberg uncovered Stephen Glass’s fabrication of an entire article in 1998, he revealed the malfeasance in a carefully reported story for which both Glass and his editor at The New Republic were given a chance to comment.

Those days are gone. It was two anonymous bloggers, @blippoblappo and @crushingbort, who incriminated BuzzFeed editor Benny Johnson for lifting material from a variety of sources–including Yahoo Answers–using Twitter as a platform to make their allegations in real time. The same users uncovered alleged errors in Fareed Zakaria’s reporting. When every single reader is a fact-checker who can easily broadcast information, things get complicated–fast.

In addition to the Post‘s reporting, sites across the Web, from Slate to the UVA student paper to personal blogs, added to what looked like an increasingly damning narrative about the trustworthiness of Rolling Stone‘s piece. What began as a simple reporting question–on writer Richard Bradley’s blog–became a media free-for-all, compounded by the fact that the only party in a position to say definitively what went awry has yet to do it.

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The best way to prevent the narrative from getting out of control is to make sure someone has a definitive take. When Jonah Lehrer was accused of fabricating quotes in 2012, Wired, where the wunderkind science writer wrote the “Frontal Cortex” blog, asked journalism professor Charles Seife to evaluate Lehrer’s writing for missteps. Seife reviewed a sampling of Lehrer’s work and found recycled, fabricated, or plagiarized material in all but one of the 18 pieces–an investigation he rigorously documented in a report published on Slate. You read right: Though Wired asked Seife to review Lehrer’s work, they declined to publish the results themselves. (Wired eventually responded to the post with a brief letter announcing Lehrer’s dismissal and an intention to better vet online work.)

Wired got away with the quiet retreat, because the focus was on Lehrer’s sloppy deception–the guy fabricated Bob Dylan quotes–not the gatekeepers that allowed it; Lehrer’s fabrications and plagiarism were spread across multiple publications, including The New Yorker.

But for the biggest scandals, though, going quietly isn’t the best way to preserve an institutional brand. This American Life editors didn’t have the luxury of pack anonymity when they discovered that a 2012 episode, investigating working conditions in Apple factories in China, contained fabricated scenes and incorrect information. Reported by performance artist Mike Daisey, the story, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” was the most popular podcast in show’s history, garnering over a million downloads and streams. In response to the errors, Ira Glass released a personal statement, a press release, and “Retraction,” a fascinating hour-long episode devoted to unpacking what went wrong in the episode–including with the account of the Marketplace reporter who discovered the problems initially. Instead of marring the show’s journalistic credence, the disclosure solidified it, setting a standard for how to handle a scandal.

And when Grantland published “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” a story outting a transgender sports entrepreneur who committed suicide during the story’s reporting process, staffers took their apology even further. Grantland brought in Christina Kahrl, a sportswriter who serves on the board of GLAAD, to analyze language and other LGBT-specific missteps of the piece, in addition to a 2,700-word explanation from Bill Simmons examining how the piece had made it through the editing process without red flags. “Someone familiar with the transgender community should have read [author] Caleb [Hannan]’s final draft,” Bill Simmons concludes. “This never occurred to us. Nobody ever brought it up.”

Because of Rolling Stone‘s coy disclosure, it’s unclear what due diligence its editors and factcheckers put into the piece. Which is a shame, because at face value, writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s story is more complicated than past examples of journalistic malpractice. She doesn’t appear to have lied, fabricated information, or misrepresented sources. She made a large mistake, instead, by basing entire swaths of narrative on a single source’s account–a mistake critics have noted may well impact people’s belief in future accusations of sexual assault which, despite consistently low rates of false reports, are easily undermined by a single lapse in accuracy.

That’s what makes it so important for Rolling Stone to rigorously re-report the facts of the story, disclosing how it was vetted, what went wrong, and what parts of the piece are trustworthy. (At Mother Jones, Editor in Chief Clara Jeffery published a string of Tweets detailing what this report should look like.)

To Rolling Stone‘s credit, there are signs such a report might be in the works. On Monday an anonymous Rolling Stone editor told CNN’s Brian Stelter to expect more information from the magazine in coming days, and a line added to the editor’s note promises that the staff “will continue to investigate the events of that evening.”

Let’s hope they provide some real answers. After all, in the unfortunate unpacking of its main subject, Rolling Stone lost an important story and damaged the credibility of an important movement.

Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis.