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?