Monday, December 8, 2014

Screw the Facts, We Have a Narrative to Advance Here!!

We have a dangerous word creeping into the vernacular of journalism: "narrative".  In the case of reporters, it involves personally-held beliefs that the writer looks to include in every story he or she writes.  Narrative is used to bolster that reporter's beliefs--and to sway as many people to that line of thinking as possible.  And it was "narrative" that got Rolling Stone magazine into a journalistic disaster this fall.

Reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely went out to show that rape is an epidemic on college campuses--and that school officials are complicit in covering it up.  By her own admission, she went looking for stories of non-prosecuted rape at Ivy League schools like Harvard, Princeton and Columbia--but chose to make the University of Virginia the setting of her story after a campus activist put her in touch with a woman who claimed that seven members of a fraternity gang-raped her two years ago.

In a podcast with the website, Erdely admitted she chose the story of the woman she called "Jackie" because the alleged assault involved members of a fraternity known to include mostly wealthy, white men.  Something she would have found at the Ivy League schools she had earlier searched for the "perfect story".  And while she agreed not to identify any of the alleged assailants by name (or in her fatal flaw: never contacted any of them to verify her source's account of what happened)--Erdely still put the name of the fraternity in the story--opening ALL members of that frat to suspicion and accusation.  A simple internet search will turn up plenty of "rapists" named individually by other people who "know exactly who did this".

Except, it now appears it didn't actually happen.  Or at least not even remotely close to how "Jackie" described it.  And now Rolling Stone is doing some serious back-tracking.  Coming under fire from both those who espouse journalistic ethics and those who advocate for victims of rape as having done irreparable damage to both causes.

But what distresses me the most is a comment from the assistant editor of the UVA student newspaper--Julia Horowitz--who tells "from where I sit in Charlottesville, to let fact checking define the narrative would be a huge mistake".  There you have, from someone who wants to be a future journalist, admission that facts shouldn't get in the way writing what you believe to be true.  If falsely accusing a bunch of rich, white guys of something they didn't do "raises awareness" or "gets people involved" or "forces change"--then their ruined reputations and damaged trust of the public in the honesty of the media is just "collateral damage".

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