Saturday, December 06, 2014

"If Your Mother Says She Loves You" Is So Twentieth Century

Once upon a time, the City News Bureau instructed its young reporters in the ways of the real world, where people were known to lie or misrepresent or exaggerate or simply be so mentally confused that they couldn't tell a story straight. Their motto became: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." In other words, trust but verify.

So last century, that hoary old adage.
The days of black and white photos - when reporters checked facts to avoid writing fiction

Journalists of today don't have time to do something like "check it out" when they have to beat some other journalist to a story. Time is of the essence in a hyper-competitive world, made even faster by the speed of the Internet. If the subject of your story tells you something, just run with it.

After all, if a woman says she was raped, how can you dare to question her? How could you even think of doubting her story, especially when she asks you not to go "check it out" by interviewing the men she claimed were rapists? Of course she must be telling the truth. Her friends trust her. Isn't that enough?

As Rolling Stone magazine has learned, no, it is not enough. The old saw about verifying a story still holds, and for very good reason.

They ran with a story that was told by a student at the University of Virginia, a prestigious and posh sort of place where the children of privilege are educated. The woman at the heart of the interview, a freshman new to the ways of university life, described a night of utter horror. She was gang-raped, she said, by a group of fraternity members at a house party. 'A Rape On Campus' went the headline and the story that followed was shocking. Reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely had a blockbuster of a story under her byline. She was on her way in the world of investigative journalism.

Except for the investigative bit. As it turned out, the whole story was a work of fiction. And Ms. Erdely is left to deal with the humiliation of being made a fool, of not doing the basic footwork needed for genuine journalism.

The woman known as Jackie insisted that Ms. Erdely not verify her tale with the men she says attacked her. Too traumatic, she said. And it was indeed traumatic when the men of the fraternity picked the story apart and pointed out the impossibilities. There was no party on the night described. There was no member named Drew who worked at the aquatic centre. 

Ms. Erdely should have done the picking apart, but no one teaches journalism in the City News Bureau style these days. It's all about googling and writing pretty prose with literary aspirations.

Focus has shifted from the fictionalized account of a rape to the very real possibility that someone could be sued for libel. But that is not the worst outcome of this failure to check things out.

A woman claimed she was raped as part of a fraternity initiation ritual, and it was not true. The turmoil created by the false story disrupted campus life, had the school's administration scrambling to find and punish the non-existent perpetrators, and caused a great deal of angst among those who court the alumni who endow the school with large donations.

Anger was stirred up, and it is now aimed directly at a woman who may have some emotional issues. So the next time a woman is raped and comes forward, she will be quizzed mercilessly and not believed because of the actions of one fragile woman and one reporter who never learned "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."

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