Rolling Stone this week published a report by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism on the magazine’s “journalistic failure.” That failure was its story last year “A Rape on Campus,” about a gang rape that allegedly took place during a party at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia.
I consider the report, which is about 13,000 words, required reading for anyone who will ever write or edit a reported story. It also wouldn’t hurt to read it if you ever plan to read, watch of listen to such a story.
The report was commissioned by Rolling Stone after the Washington Post and others called into question the facts of the University of Virginia story, and even the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, told her editors that she no longer had confidence in the accuracy of the her piece. “A Rape on Campus” relied on a single source, the alleged rape victim, whom Erdely called Jackie in the story.
Rolling Stone has retracted the piece and taken it down, but the Internet Archive hosts an archived version.
The report released this week was created by Steve Coll, the Columbia journalism school’s dean and a Pulitzer-winning reporter; Sheila Coronel, the school’s dean of academic affairs; and Derek Kravitz, a postgraduate research scholar at Columbia. Neither the report’s authors nor the school were compensated, they and Rolling Stone say.
The academic trio tried to answer the question posed in the headline of the report as it appears on RollingStone.com: “What Went Wrong?” They succeeded, in very thorough fashion. But media theorist and NYU professor Clay Shirky, writing at NewRepublic.com, suggests that the whole thing should have come down to three sentences:
We investigated the matter thoroughly. We found no extenuating circumstances. The writers, editors, and fact-checkers at Rolling Stone abdicated the skepticism required by their profession.
“The rest,” Shirky writes, “is just an appendix.”
I agree, but I think the report is worth reading anyway, because it describes so clearly how that abdication can happen. Time after time, Erdely and her editors “did not pursue important reporting paths” that would likely have surfaced the massive problems underlying the story:
There were a number of ways that Erdely might have reported further, on her own, to verify what Jackie had told her. Jackie told the writer that one of her rapists had been part of a small discussion group in her anthropology class. Erdely might have tried to verify independently that there was such a group and to identify the young man Jackie described. She might have examined Phi Kappa Psi’s social media for members she could interview and for evidence of a party on the night Jackie described. Erdely might have looked for students who worked at the aquatic center and sought out clues about the lifeguard Jackie had described. Any one of these and other similar reporting paths might have led to discoveries that would have caused Rolling Stone to reconsider its plans. But three failures of reporting effort stand out. They involve basic, even routine journalistic practice – not special investigative effort. And if these reporting pathways had been followed, Rolling Stone very likely would have avoided trouble.
I don’t think your reading should stop with the report. Media critic Jay Rosen, who also teaches at NYU, wrote on his PressThink blog that the report failed to identify an even bigger problem with the UVA story.
In an early scene in the story, three friends of Jackie’s dissuade her from reporting the alleged attack for fear of what it might mean for her reputation on campus. Though Erdely describes this scene as an omniscient narrator, it turns out that the information came solely from Jackie, and that Erdely had not been able to find and interview the three friends. The Columbia report describes the decision to go ahead with the story without having interviewed the friends as “the most consequential decision” the magazine made that led to the journalistic failure.
The most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative and go in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative. The key term is emblematic. [From the report: "Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show 'what it’s like to be on campus now.'"] The report has too little to say about that fateful decision, probably because it’s not a breach of procedure but standard procedure in magazine-style journalism. (Should it be?) This is my primary criticism of the Columbia report: it has too little to say about the “emblem of…” problem …
Idea: Maybe “a single, emblematic college rape case” does not exist. Maybe the hunt for such was ill-conceived from the start. Maybe that’s the wrong way for Rolling Stone to have begun.
The story’s omniscient voice placed the reader at the scene of a shocking assault as well as a meeting between the victim and three friends on a Charlottesville street corner. It’s rarely clear in these scenes that everything we’re reading came from a single source Rolling Stone identified only as “Jackie.”
The Columbia report noted that “There is a tension in magazine and narrative editing between crafting a readable story—a story that flows—and providing clear attribution of quotations and facts. It can be clunky and disruptive to write ‘she said’ over and over.”
Beaujon writes, “Rolling Stone’s anti-clunk strategy, though, directly reflected a more basic problem with the story: The article’s fealty to narrative was more important than its commitment to reporting.”
This blog has written often about the questions addressed in the Columbia report. Similar discussions around the revelation that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o's late girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, never existed led to the B/R Blog’s invention of a journalism rule called Lennay’s Law: Tell us what you know is true, and tell us how you know it.
As is so often the case, following that dictum would have saved Rolling Stone this time. As complex as reporting and writing can be—and it can be as complex as life itself—at bottom it comes down to writers and editors being dogged in that skepticism Shirky wrote about, in constantly asking, “Really? Is that true? How do we know?”
More coverage and analysis:
What was the single point of failure at Rolling Stone? The authors of Columbia’s investigative report answer that and more, Columbia Journalism Review (Interview with Coll and Coronel)
Do scandals like Rolling Stone’s do lasting damage to journalism? Columbia Journalism Review
He began by talking about the troubles last year at The New Republic, which saw mass editorial-staff resignations after new owner Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder, announced plans to make the venerable magazine a “vertically integrated digital-media company,” which is the kind of talk that sends old-media types running.
In the [social media] pecking party that ensued, The New Republic was elevated to the status of an American institution, in need of protection from being corrupted by everything smart people were supposed to hate. The problem was that The New Republic stopped being relevant a long time before “snackable content” was mentioned in an editorial staff meeting as something to which they should ascribe …
The reaction to The New Republic’s supposed demise came to represent our faith in good writing. It was the substance of journalism hoped for, but also the unread browser tabs of content unseen. We felt more obligated to mourn the impending changes to its content than we ever did to actually read its reporting.
That’s a lot like something I started saying in the years when the demise of newspapers was hitting warp speed, and pundits were wondering who would keep an eye on our government. I said I’d feel a lot worse about losing newspapers as a government watchdog if they actually did some watchdogging once in a while.
Media formats get romanticized a lot. When I was a kid, the grownups talked about the great old days of radio, before TV ruined it. Yeah, right. There were people in my grandparents’ generation who believed the talkies never quite matched the grandeur of silent films.
Formats change, tastes change, and the content itself changes. In Parkes’ words, “It’s absurd to imagine changes in the production and accessibility of writing not affecting how we read it.” He points out that until very recently, storytelling hadn’t really changed since much since we lived in caves, and what we valued as a culture came out of the oral tradition. That means longer, more poetic, more linear works. “But then,” Parkes writes, “whammo!”
The internet changed the dynamic. Content, in whatever form, used to be scarce. When we found something we liked, we wanted to sit with it for a while. Now, we’re flooded with content:
Content is everywhere, and we can pull it from anywhere. Because there’s so much of it, we’re increasingly likely to pull it in short bursts rather than devote ourselves to long engagements.
These are not new thoughts, but Parkes puts them really well, and then ties them to the plight of us writers. Parkes himself, he writes, wants to tell long, poetic stories. But those are unfashionable. That’s what he was doing at The Score when he and his staff were let go, he writes, because the site wanted to focus on “the kind of content users are increasingly coming to us for.”
After such events, it’s easy to adopt a “woe is me” attitude. My skills don’t match current trends. Pity me, then join me in championing a lost art that the mouth-breathing mitten-stringers have decimated. Together, we can collectively mourn our declining culture on social media. What better way than 140 characters at a time?
It would be the same faux debt we pretended to owe The New Republic.
Rather than wallow in self-pity and lamentations for a possibly romanticized past that isn’t coming back, “We should be seeking new ways to express what we want to say in formats that appeal to readers. We have to embrace the restrictions,” Parkes writes.
That reminds me of a conversation I had with Bleacher Report co-founder Dave Finocchio early in my time here about ways to improve the quality of the writing on B/R, which is what I was hired to help do. To me “improve the quality” meant something like “make it more like the writing in respected publications like Sports Illustrated or the New York Times.” The topic at hand was some initiative that, while interesting, didn’t get us any closer to that goal.
Finocchio said, “We have to change the definition of what ‘quality writing’ is.”
You can read that as “dumb it down” if you want, but I think it was very profound. Dave was right. We were operating in a new and ever-changing medium. In fact, it was just starting to radically transform again, to mobile-first. Of course the standards should change right along with it.
Asking “How can a piece of writing be great if it has tweets and GIFs and videos every few paragraphs?” is like asking “How can ‘The Godfather’ be a great movie when it doesn’t have 575 pages, like the book?”
“Just as technology led to writing’s decrease in value,” Parkes writes, “it also offers us the tools to return, accept the changing environment and move forward.”
In response to Parkes, Hardball Talk writer Craig Calcaterra posted How does a writer survive in the era of snackable content? on his personal blog. Calcaterra sums Parkes up this way:
Adapt or perish, Mr. or Ms. Writer Person, because this is a business.
It’s a sentiment with which I completely agree. As I found in my previous career, if you think you’re part of some greater noble calling which should be immune to commercial considerations, you’re gonna find yourself on the unemployment line eventually.
Calcaterra’s previous career was the law. He now makes his living writing short takes about baseball, 15 to 20 a day, which is perhaps not ideal for a writer who is “quite comfortable with more in-depth analysis.” But they all add up to a body of work, Calcaterra writes, that he can be proud of. “Yes, my readers come for laughs and videos and little snacks,” he writes, “but they also know that I stand for some things and that I can be trusted to offer some wisdom or insight on the things that are more or less in my wheelhouse.”
And you know what? In 50 years or so the people who are teenagers now will be wistful about the days of 250-word quick takes with tweets and GIFs. Those were the days, they’ll say, when there was some real writing.
Distant Thunder: What Did Oklahoma City’s Media Do to Piss Off Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant? is a look into the Thunder locker room and what it’s like for the beat writers who work there.
It isn’t pretty.
It’s also nothing I haven’t seen before in various locker rooms around various sports. The athletes find the media an intrusive annoyance, the beat writers, wanting to get on with their jobs, wish the athletes would answer a few questions, preferably without being ridiculously rude. Nobody’s particularly happy.
The situation in Oklahoma City seems a bit more tense than most, but it’s a difference of degree, not kind. Curtis attributes it to the team’s fierce lockdown on access:
It was a gripe I heard again and again from the Thunder press corps. Nobody held a grudge against Durant or Westbrook. They knew the locker-room scrums would produce a poor harvest. What frustrated the press corps was that the players—especially Durant and Westbrook—remained largely out of reach. While complying with the league’s minimum standards for access, the Thunder carefully proscribed their availability …
In the Thunder locker room, there’s a watchfulness that prevents all but the most formal interactions. Reporters said that nearly every time they approach a player, even with tape recorders holstered, a Thunder PR rep sidles up to listen. “If you have a conversation with a player about parenting, someone is going to be standing right there hovering and trying to steer it whichever way they think it should go,” [Oklahoman reporter Darnell] Mayberry said. “That’s the kind of culture they’ve created here. No one has a personal relationship with any of these guys.”
I might have used the headline “So you want to be a beat writer.”
Curtis writes that Berry Tramel, the Oklahoman columnist Russell Westbrook barked at in January, stands “feet away yet miles apart from” the star 30-plus nights a year. “It’s not going to be any kind of relationship-based situation,” Tramel tells Curtis. “I’m just going to be writing about how great he is. I’m never going to be writing about who he is.”
Which makes me wonder: Why bother? Why does the world, or at least the sports readership, need a talented, trained journalist to stand next to the locker of an athlete and write down the banalities he reluctantly utters?
Curtis writes that after Marshawn Lynch’s anti-media routine at the Super Bowl, “One common response was: Why bother players after a game? I don’t care what they say, anyway … ‘Yes, you do,’ said [ESPN writer Royce] Young. ‘There’s a reason NBA TV runs every playoff postgame press conference.’”
That reason is that coaches and players tend to answer questions at those press conferences, so they can be worth watching. They know they’re in front of the public, and they generally cooperate and don’t act like jerks. It’s completely different than a locker-room situation.
I wonder if The Oklahoman, and lots of other media outlets, could learn some things from The New York Times, which, according to Poynter.org’s Ed Sherman learned some things when it pulled its Knicks beat writer.
That happened, Sherman writes, not because locker-room interviews were going badly, but because the Knicks were so bad and uninteresting that sports editor Jason Stallman decided to liberate Scott Cacciola from having to write about them, assigning him instead to more interesting basketball stories around the world. Those included the tales of a powerful fifth-grade girls team in Springfield, Ill., and a New Zealand team in Australia’s National Basketball League.
The Times’ name for Cacciola’s series of articles: Not the Knicks.
I wonder what stories all those reporters are not covering when they’re standing around clubhouses, locker rooms and dressing rooms, waiting for some star player to deliberately go through his post-shower routine before reluctantly agreeing to mumble a few clichés.
It’s not exactly Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Interviewing But Were Afraid to Ask*, but this week Steve Buttry’s blog has offered enough interviewing advice from enough smart people that if you sit down with it, you’ll be feeling like you could tell Studs Terkel a thing or two. Or at least Roy Firestone.
Buttry collected the responses from “more than two dozen veteran journalists” to a question asked by a student:
The conversation started this week in a private Facebook group, where a journalism professor sought aid from some former colleagues, asking for advice on helping a student who “is really struggling when he has to interview people in his intro to reporting class. He gets very nervous and just can’t do it.”
There are way too many answers to get into them here, but, as Buttry notes, there’s a lot of overlap in the answers. I agree with him that this is more reinforcement than repetition. People keep saying these things for a reason. Among them:
- If you’re nervous, pretend you’re not. Act. Your subject can’t tell the difference between someone who isn’t nervous and someone who’s just acting not-nervous. Either way, the subject will be put at ease if you’re calm.
- Use notes. Have a list of questions ready, if possible, and be very ready to stray from them. I do this.
- Try to make it a conversation. You’re likely to get better answers if it feels more like talking and less like getting the third degree.
- Listen. Don’t be so focused on your next question that you miss what your subject is saying—which may lead you to a better next question.
- Practice. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it, the more at ease you’ll be, and soon enough you’ll be the one giving advice to nervous newcomers.
Toward the end of the piece, Buttry quotes tweets by New York University professor and media critic Jay Rosen and St. Paul Pioneer Press editor Hal Davis suggesting that getting something wrong in your question will get your subject to open up. “Wanna get someone to talk?” Rosen writes. “Tell them you think you know what they’d say and paraphrase their view. They’ll correct you.”
You can decide for yourself whether you want to be wrong deliberately as a strategy, but I think the real point is not to be afraid to make an assertion that might be wrong, and beyond that, not to be afraid to admit when you don’t understand something. Assuming you’ve done your homework and prepared for the interview, there’s a good chance that if you don’t understand something, most readers or listeners won’t either. That means you want your subject to explain it.
If your subject explains it while thinking, “I can’t believe this person doesn’t understand this,” so what? Better to learn something while being thought a fool than to remain a fool.
There are links a-go-go at the end of Buttry’s post to earlier posts with interviewing tips, and to more resources to help with interviewing skills.
And don’t miss this follow-up post, ‘Uh-huh’: Does it ruin audio, or keep a source talking? (Maybe both), which interested me in my role as a radio interviewer.
* See what I did there?
A lot has changed since I took over daily operation of the Bleacher Report Blog almost four years ago. And this blog has changed right along with it.
In the spring of 2011 B/R was digging into the process of improving the quality of the content. The task of the B/R Blog was to offer journalism advice, education and examples of success. I used to joke that my job was like being the dean of a correspondence journalism school. Now Bleacher Report has evolved to the point where we no longer feel the need to provide that kind of basic journalism education on this blog.
Over time this blog has transitioned away from journalism education toward what I’d call media studies. I have tried to point out trends and topics in the media business that I thought would be useful and interesting to early- or mid-career journalists.
We’ve also used the B/R Blog to make announcements and talk about editorial policies of interest to Bleacher Report writers.
All of that is going to continue, but we’ve decided to scale back from the B/R Blog’s daily posting schedule. When there’s something to say, whether it’s about the media business, journalism topics or Bleacher Report policies and announcements, we’ll say it. You can expect several blog posts per month.
You can also expect more activity from the @BR_WriterHQ Twitter feed, which your humble narrator runs. That’s where I’ll be pointing out great sportswriting and interesting ideas about journalism on a daily basis.
Thanks for reading and commenting on this Blog over the last four years. I look forward to more of the same. Just not quite as often.
Sticking with the theme of audio from yesterday’s post, here’s an interesting conversation among Digiday editor in chief Brian Morrissey, staff writer Eric Blattberg and Slate general manager Brendan Monaghan about podcasting.
Slate, which Morrissey writes has 15 regular podcasts, is “spinning out a podcast network called Panoply, which will offer its expertise to other publishers wanting to build their own podcasts.”
As Morrissey points out, podcasting, which has been around for a decade or so and never really went away, is enjoying a boom in the wake of the success of “Serial.”
You can listen to the conversation on Digiday’s 23-minute podcast, or read some highlights, including this quote from Monaghan, which sounds a lot like what ESPN Audio chief Traug Keller had to say yesterday:
Everyone is so used to their DVR. In the audio space, that’s happening as well. You see that, whether it’s a DVR or an Uber or food delivery. It’s people getting things when they want it and how they want it. Combine them, and you’ve got a pretty compelling case.
It’s a good interview, with Keller talking about ESPN’s top radio personalities, what the four-letter considers “the line” that its radio talent shouldn’t cross—”Whatever you do, don’t make anything personal”—and what ESPN could do better in the audio world.
Deep in the article, on Page 3 if you land there without being sent to a single-page version by someone nice like me, is Keller talking about the changing nature of the radio landscape:
There had been 10,000 program directors at 10,000 radio stations telling you what to listen to. But what is happening now is the fan or the listener is really becoming in charge. What we need to keep thinking about it is having as wide a net as possible but putting out as much diverse and different programming, even simultaneously. You may want Colin Cowherd or [ESPN Chicago's] Waddle and Silvy and it’s now your choice. On the ESPN Radio app you can listen to the network stream or a local show in Chicago or Cleveland, or a podcast of Matthew Berry or the audio version of PTI. Now the listener is in charge and that is a fundamental dynamic change that is going on.
That’s a very succinct and very useful description of a massive change in media that’s happened in the last two decades. I think it can’t be overstated. It’s the fundamental fact on which the whole business is built: The listener—reader, user, viewer—is in charge.
Remember that insane episode last weekend with the dress that was either white and gold or blue and black? At Poynter.org Craig Silverman writes that that debate offered a lesson every journalist needs to learn.
That lesson is that “We are all at the mercy of our brains and its cognitive processes,” Silverman writes. “The simple truth is our brains process information in ways that can lead us astray. This is something every journalist needs to be aware of and account for in the work we do.”
The dress is a reminder that we sometimes see things that aren’t there, misperceive what’s right in front of us, and otherwise fall victim to our own brains.
This is particularly true when it comes to the way we process information. Once we have made up our minds—or decided on an angle for our story—we assimilate information in accordance with that view.
“[W]e humans quickly develop an irrational loyalty to our beliefs, and work hard to find evidence that supports those opinions and to discredit, discount or avoid information that does not,” wrote Cordelia Fine, the author of “A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives,” in The New York Times.
Journalists are told to be aware of the biases of sources. But we must also be constantly aware of, and seeking to mitigate, our own cognitive biases.
Quoting from his Tow Centre research report about online rumors and how news organizations debunk misinformation, Silverman lists and explains five phenomena and biases that can trip up journalists. Here they are, with a brief description of each, but you should read Silverman’s piece for a more thorough explanation of each.
The Backfire Effect: “When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.”
Confirmation Bias: “For journalists, it often manifests itself as an unwillingness to pay attention to facts and information that go against our predetermined angle for a story.”
Motivated Reasoning: “Whereas confirmation bias is an automatic tendency to notice data that fit with our beliefs, motivated reasoning is the complementary tendency to scrutinize ideas more carefully if we don’t like them than if we do.”
Biased Assimilation: “We interpret and understand new information in a way that fits with what we already know or believe.”
Group Polarization: “If we’re speaking with people who share our view, the tendency is for all of us to become even more vehement about it.”
If I were the kind of person who felt guilty about things it would be a guilty pleasure of mine to read things like Roy Peter Clark’s Fifty Writing Tools: Quick List at Poynter.org.
I always picture Ernest Hemingway scoffing at me and then punching me in the nose as I perused Clark’s list of tips and tricks, which he advises readers to keep handy near their desk or keyboard. A few of the numbered tools:
1. Begin sentences with subjects and verbs.
Make meaning early, then let weaker elements branch to the right
11. Prefer the simple over the technical.
Use shorter words, sentences and paragraphs at points of complexity.
23. Tune your voice.
Read drafts aloud.
When it comes down to it, I’m not scared of Hemingway. For one thing, he’s been dead for more than half a century, so I like my chances in a fair fight. For another, in his own way, he had his own tips and tools for writers.
I don’t know if there’s anything in Clark’s list that’s a big revelation to me. I just find it helpful to me as a writer to read things like it once in a while. It’s a battery charger. Oh yeah: That’s how you do it.
Strong applicants to the Advanced Program in Editing and Content Management come to us from a variety of backgrounds, having experience in everything from school paper production and peer editing to research projects and book publishing.
A solid sports background is certainly key, as is some proofreading prowess. But while we’ll need to see that eye for detail and grammar know-how, we’re also interested in the wide range of tools you’ve picked up in college and sharpened in the real world. So we’re happy to see well-rounded résumés that show hard work, ingenuity and comfort with online media. More specifically, we’re looking for:
- An editing track record—in or out of school
- The ability to identify and correct typos; factual grammatical and punctuation errors; and deviations from style
- A feel for what is required to constitute a well-supported argument
- An understanding of the importance of sourcing and attribution
- The willingness to learn, reference stylebooks, apply feedback and collaborate
- A sense for visually appealing formatting and layout
- Facility with the technical aspects of digital publishing
- A keen attention to the nitty-gritty—balanced with excellent time management
- Knowledge about specific sports and teams
Any candidate who progresses through our admissions process will be asked to provide us with a few different supporting materials—and by that we mean to say there will be things like résumé requests and editing tests, but we emphasize the word different to underscore our hunt for individuality, special skill sets and untapped potential.
Meanwhile, these tips should apply to all stages of application across the board:
Take your time: Quick turnarounds are part of a digital editor’s daily life, but you should take the time necessary to produce a polished application. Read carefully, follow our directions and double-check everything you send our way. Proofread everything. You’re applying to an editing program, so we need to see tidy, top-notch emails. Make sure you’re addressing your message to the right people, clean up stray marks and catch any misspellings before you hit “send.”
Reference resources: This goes hand in hand with the first hint. Look things up! Consult a dictionary, thumb through your AP Stylebook, confirm grammar rules, check spellings and dates. Do all this before you hit “send,” and you’ll not only be getting a clean application in front of our admissions team but also showcasing your knack for fact-finding.
Provide a fully representative résumé: Have you done prior copy editing work in some capacity? Do you have experience with a CMS, SEO, AP style, photo/video production? Let us know. Make sure to list these tidbits so we’re getting the full picture of your skill set. In journalism’s changing landscape, roles are in flux and editorial positions are always expanding, so don’t sell yourself short because you think some of your editorial experience doesn’t fit.
Include a writing sample: A writing sample is optional, but if you have something appropriate to share, don’t be shy! A well-produced clip or undergrad essay can be a nice complement to your other supporting materials.
Ask if you’re unsure: We try to make the application process as straightforward as possible, but if you find you’re unclear about something, we welcome any questions.
Be professional and persistent: A professional attitude is required, and we’ll look favorably upon more formal rather than more casual communications. The program itself maintains a relaxed training dialogue, but do what you can to show you’re serious about your application. We also encourage you to try, try again. The APECM is very competitive, so you may not receive an offer of admission your first time out, but we’ll urge you to shore up your weaker points and take another crack at the process after a few months of practice and reflection.
We know it can be tough to stand out as a top candidate when it comes to a discipline like editing, which calls for some standardized proficiencies. But if you do your best to accomplish and demonstrate as many of the above as possible, you should have a leg up on the competition. Best of luck!