Journalists Should Act More Like Scientists

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The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” — Some wise person who wasn’t Einstein.

“I don’t think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things,” [Rolling Stone managing editor, Will] Dana, said. “We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.”

I’ve never liked that (fake) Einstein quote, because it conflates stupidity with insanity. But I couldn’t help thinking of it when I read the Dana quote in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Report on what went wrong on the now-discredited Rolling Stone story, “A Rape on Campus.” The story recounted a harrowing tale of a University of Virginia student’s alleged gang rape at a campus fraternity house.

I’m not going to rehash all the problems with the Rolling Stone story (you can read all about it in the report). Let’s just say that something went very wrong, and the magazine’s tone deaf response to the report gives journalism another black eye. By insisting that,”Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” Rolling Stone editors essential threw the alleged victim, “Jackie,” under the bus.

The problem wasn’t that the magazine gave too much weight to Jackie’s story, it’s that they had settled on the story they wanted to tell before they’d ever gathered the facts. As Jay Rosen notes in his blog, “[This narrative] didn’t start with Sabrina Rubin Erdely. She was sent on a search for where to set it.”

I’ve been writing for magazines for more than 15 years, and what I’ve seen in that time is the cult of the narrative ruining it for the rest of us. An escalating fixation on perfectly drawn characters and beautiful narratives has emphasized storytelling over truth. It’s this obsession with tidy stories and uncomplicated characters that has brought us Jonah Lehrer, Mike Daisy, Tom Junod and Malcom Gladwell.

The truth is rarely as poetic and neat as these writers would have us believe. To be clear, every writer makes crucial decisions in the writing — which story to tell, which details to emphasize and which to leave out. There’s no getting around this, and it’s the journalist’s job to tell a story that serves the reader, not the source. But that story must be built on truth, not the storyteller’s idealized rendition of it.

The oh-so-perfect narratives crafted by storytellers like Lehrer and Gladwell raise the ante and set a standard that many stories simply can’t reach— at least not if you don’t cut corners or facts. In Hollywood and many glossy magazines, every character has a satisfying arc and every story has a tidy ending. True stories are more often messy and banal. And that’s ok. Not every story is unforgettable or infuriating. That doesn’t mean they’re not important. We do no one a service by neglecting the more common and true stories that might not capture the prurient clicks. Sabrina Rubin Erdely had opportunities to write about women at UVA whose stories weren’t as shocking as Jackie’s. Instead, she and her editors chose to go with the most sensational one — the one too good to check out.

I don’t know whether Jackie is the fabulist that Dana accuses her of being. But I know that human beings have stories they tell themselves and others about their lives. Narratives are how we make sense of the world and cope with the experiences we encounter. As anyone who’s ever recounted a story around a family dinner table knows, we don’t always see the world the same way. Some of the stories we tell ourselves are embellished. Sometimes these stories are flat-out lies, but sometimes they’re simply different renderings of confusing events. Sometimes they’re the tools people need to survive. They’re almost always self-serving in some way.

Whether it’s true or false or something in between, Jackie’s story belongs to her. She is under no obligation to share it with Rolling Stone reporters or readers. She chose to tell her story, with the knowledge that doing so would expose it to the scrutiny and vitriol that women get when they expose their personal lives in public. By shielding Jackie from rigorous fact-checking, Rolling Stone did her no favors, and that makes it hard to argue that they avoided checking her story out of concern for her wellbeing (wouldn’t it be far more upsetting to have her facts torn down in public, after publication?) When journalists tell a story for a wider audience, they’re doing so for their readers — not the subject. In Jackie, Rolling Stone saw an opportunity too good to pass up. But every writer can tell you about the story that just didn’t pan out, and sometimes you just have to let it go.

When a scientific theory comes face to face with new facts, scientists adjust the theory accordingly, and journalists should do the same. It’s ok to go into reporting with a hypothesis, but like a good scientist, a rigorous journalist should work hard to disprove it. (If you fail, that’s evidence that your hunch might be true.)

It’s important to recognize that none of this would have happened if we did not a have a culture that stigmatized women who’ve been raped. Can anyone imagine this kind of fiasco happening over a story where the main character’s house had been burglarized? When a woman’s house is broken into, she can appear on the front page of the newspaper without fear of being blamed or shamed. But when it’s her body that’s been invaded, suddenly her whole life is scrutinized. It doesn’t take a sensational story to show how unconscionable our culture’s response to rape can be; it’s a pity that Erdely and her editors didn’t trust her to turn the messy truth into a story worth listening to.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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5 thoughts on “Journalists Should Act More Like Scientists

  1. I published a first-person account of my assault in the Wash Post in 1981–the editors asked for the police report and checked every part they could. I used my own name–they insisted on that. Did it carry a stigma? I am sorry to say it did–it may be popular to say rape is a crime of violence and not sex, but it involved “sex” and people think they know something “sexual” about you. It makes everyone uncomfortable. But I thought then–and do now–that I did nothing wrong–the rapists did. They were never caught. Did they get away with it–depends on your point of view. Probably not, ultimately.

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