Without trust, journalism simply doesn’t work

By Caitlin Kelly

Do you trust the media? Should you?
Do you trust the media? Should you?

Some of you are journalists and some of you are studying it.

So maybe some of you have followed this disturbing story about a recent Rolling Stone piece about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia that, suddenly, seems to have gone very wrong.

From the Washington Post:

A University of Virginia student’s harrowing description of a gang rape at a fraternity, detailed in a recent Rolling Stone article, began to unravel Friday as interviews revealed doubts about significant elements of the account. The fraternity issued a statement rebutting the story, and Rolling Stone apologized for a lapse in judgment and backed away from its article on the case.

Jackie, a U-Va. junior, said she was ambushed and raped by seven men at the Phi Kappa Psi house during a date party in 2012, allegations that tore through the campus and pushed the elite public school into the center of a national discussion about how universities handle sex-assault claims. Shocking for its gruesome details, the account described Jackie enduring three hours of successive rapes, an ordeal that left her blood-spattered and emotionally devastated.

The U-Va. fraternity where the attack was alleged to have occurred has said it has been working with police and has concluded that the allegations are untrue. Among other things, the fraternity said there was no event at the house the night the attack was alleged to have happened.

This is the sort of story that — initially — won thousands of high-fives and re-tweets, from journalists applauding the brave, investigative, nationally-published work that so many of us aspire to.

Those fighting against rape and sexual violence were thrilled to see this issue was getting so much attention.

Then the dominos started tumbling…

I interviewed 104 people for this book -- all original interviews. Yes, they're real people!
I interviewed 104 people for this book — all original interviews. Yes, they’re real people!

Journalism is nothing more, at root, than a very long and sometimes fragile set of interlocking expressions of trust.

Whether the story is being published by a small-town weekly or broadcast by a multinational  conglomerate, this is typically how it works:

— A source decides to share their story

We think:

Are they lying? What’s in it for them? Why are they telling me? Why now? Is this an exclusive? Why? What conflicts of interest do they have? Do I really believe them? What doesn’t make sense here and who else can confirm or deny it?

— We decide the source is credible and pitch the idea to our editor, whether we’re freelance or staff, newbie or 30-year veteran, working for a website, newspaper, magazine or broadcast.

They think:

Is this reporter reliable? What’s their track record of errors or corrections? Do I like them? Do I trust them? How well-trained are they? Do I trust their news judgment? Is there a conflict of interest here between the source and reporter that would compromise our organization’s reputation for judgment? How about our credibility?

— They pitch it in a story meeting, typically attended by other editors competing hard for a limited space for telling stories and tight budgets for paying freelancers and acquiring illustration, (art, photos, graphics, maps) to accompany them. There may be significant travel and fixer or translator expenses to argue for and defend. They also have to persuade the most senior editors, their bosses, that the story (and the reporter and the reliability of the source), is unimpeachable. Their own reputations are on the line every time. And no one, ever, wants to look like a gullible or naive fool.

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)
My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

They think: We’ve done that story a million times already. What’s new? What’s different? Why now? Can it wait? Who else knows about this story — and what are the odds they’ll beat us to it? Do we care?

— The story is assigned and the reporter (and photographer and/or videographer) go out to shoot it and report it. They invest time, energy, skill and limited resources in this decision, leaving other stories undone.

They think: I hope this one gets a lots of clicks. I hope this this one makes front page. I hope this one wins me a major award/promotion/fellowship/book contract. I sure hope this story is solid.

— The story is in and being edited by an array of editors, each of whom is expected to bring their savvy and insight to it, asking every possible question. It must hold up. It must make sense, not merely as an emotionally compelling story but based on a set of facts that are verifiably true.

They think: Does this narrative actually make sense? Has the reporter interviewed enough people? The right people? Who else do they need to talk to and how soon and in what detail? So, why does this piece feel…odd to me? Who should I talk to about my concerns? When and why and how soon? Should I get this piece reviewed by our company’s lawyers?

— The story, if run by a major magazine, may be fact-checked, with staff paid to call sources back and to confirm facts and check to see if quotes are accurate. Copy editors and proofreaders check spelling, grammar and style. The editor in chief and/or publisher (may) read it one more time and sign off on it, knowing their personal reputation — and that of their outlet and parent company — are on the line.

The piece appears.

Do you trust what you hear and read?

Should you?


27 thoughts on “Without trust, journalism simply doesn’t work

  1. I do trust, Caitlyn. For 30-plus years, I was part of the newspaper machine you described so well above. I had to trust, and I did so, willingly, believing in my education, my eyes, my ears, my soul.

    Now, though, with cost-cutting and time constraints and fewer gatekeepers and increased competition I hold my breath more and more. On my blog I am a one-person operation. You, too? So many others? Scary, that.

    1. Thanks for weighing in, Mark. I hoped you would as I knew this would likely resonate with you.

      Jose is leaving the NYT after 30 yrs, after accepting the buyout…they are losing HUGE talent, like him and Steven Greenhouse…it scares me for sure.

      1. I was wondering if Jose would take their offer or not. The revenue side just can’t support the same personnel numbers as the past. I bow my head that past, my friend.

      2. Well, it’s a leap of faith, for sure! But he’s already talking to lots of good people about the next job and the buyout was sweetened this time by 35% above 3 wks/yr. That was tempting for people with long tenures and/or not saddled by enormous debt; we have no kids and fairly low (albeit for NYC area) overhead so it seems do-able.

  2. themodernidiot

    Nope. It’s mostly aggregated, unedited, sensationalism. The 1800’s are alive and well in journalism. I will read the NYT, the LAT, and the WP-but I will fact check them all.

  3. In these politicised times; every mistake like this is ammunition for the right groups to undermine every future incident that requires addressing like this one. Good that if this vile thing didn’t happen; damn shame the story was wrong.

  4. I have become increasingly skeptical of news sources as I see two trends emerging: corporate-owned media conglomerates that have a clear agenda, and more sources than ever that are not following the same set of standards and processes you describe.

    Hence the popularity of the John Stewart-types, who have taken on the roll of calling BS.

    I do think there are things that help skeptics do our own research–tools like twitter, which allow anyone to get real-time, on the ground detail about an event. But then you lose the fact-checking and analysis that journalism offers.

    I have hope that we’ll get through these growing pains, but it’s worrisome for sure.

    1. Jean, thanks for weighing. I will sound like a cranky dinosaur (as usual) but am also dismayed by the faux distinction being made between “digital natives” (anyone under 30, possibly 25) and “immigrants” i.e. people who did — or still do — write for print and have a deep understanding (if not always used) or ethics and shared professional standards and behaviors.

      The NYT, as you may know (?) this week is ridding itself of 100 (!) staffers — photographers, photo editors (including my husband, who helped them win a Pulitzer), writers, editors, copy editors. You will soon miss some of the best writers there — veterans like Floyd Norris (on economics) and Steven Greenhouse (on labor.)

      It saddens and frustrates me, as a reader and as someone still producing journalism…not “content.”

  5. It is sad times when we think of all the negative changes in our society. GREED, which has created the downward ripple effect is a major issue.

    However, my heart and spirit are alive and well for every good I see in others when being kind and helpful. There is good and hope in this world 🙂

  6. I’m so glad you’re addressing this. What happened with Rolling Stone is beyond “fiasco” on so many levels. Aside from the damage that the story has caused for sex crime survivors past, present, and future, and those directly involved in this instance, the people have always relied on the heralds to stay connected with people and issues so they can make empowered choices for their own lives. So, when a very major, trusted outlet does not take proper responsibility to check their facts, validate their source, get opposing or supporting witness statements, or demonstrate objectivity, they…well, we essentially end up with nothing better than a farce or a sitcom. There is nothing more dangerous than a lie disguised as the truth. (Tawana Brawley, anyone?)

    With all the corporate influence and powerful, personal interests laying the foundation for media operations, not to mention the simple fact that it’s run by human beings, I think it’s imperative that we take every story, everywhere, with a grain of salt.

    As for trust, I completely, absolutely agree, even in the entertainment sector. When we write about bands, review projects, or conduct interviews, we empower them. Even if we think what they have to offer is complete crap, the mere fact that we mention their name is enough to create a buzz and possibly promote sales, regardless. So, when we do find an artist that we are drawn to, we trust that they are genuine in their product and dedication. We trust that our endorsement is well-founded and that our readers will respect our integrity in judgment. There is nothing worse than conducting a truly inspiring, engaging interview, then writing up a strong piece, only to find that the artist quits, creates drama, or breaks up just after. Talk about that “looking foolish.”

    This is why I could never do publicity again. Sometimes, all we have is our name. And when we take too many gambles on fickle horses, looking at potential and not reality, we can end up with less than that.

    I’m very glad that Rolling Stone took the high road after the fact. I just hope that they’ve learned their very painful, humiliating lesson. I will say this: Thanks to them, I think we all have.

    Thanks for another great post!

    1. Thanks for this…I think about these issues every time I write something and one reason I avoid certain kinds of stories, like “celebrity profiles” which are simply promotional bullshit.

      Highly lucrative for writers and publications, though…

  7. This is perhaps a somewhat related issue, but I also believe that many media outlets are absolving themselves of legal responsibility and placing the onus on the freelancer to ‘ensure’ that their story stands up and to face any legal challenges that might arise. Still, this is Rolling Stone, which of course has published/broken its share of huge stories over the years, as well as having a stable of truly A-List writers. When you think, though, of the thousands of potentially controversial stories that have been published over the years, we really don’t see this kind of thing happen very often (or… that the public is made aware of). I think in a lot of cases what happens is that “the writer won’t eat lunch in this town, anymore” and kinda disappears.

  8. With the rise of the ‘independent contractors’, bloggers included, and less gatekeepers, the possibility of an unreliable source or story is much greater. I generally try to look into more than one source for any story that holds importance for me. Even in my class of kinders, when we study non-fiction, (animals), and they research and do a little visual and oral report on their findings, I require them to use more than one source of information and we have a very low level discussion about bias and reliability. They seem to understand why after I read them a few examples of information on the same subject.

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