Bad Journalism Doesn’t Mean No News

I haven’t paid much attention here to the incredibly murky and tangled case of Rolling Stone‘s exploded reporting on an alleged campus rape at a University of Virginia fraternity party. But there is a general principle here that Amanda Marcotte does a good job of explaining at TPMCafe:

After months of anticipation, Rolling Stone has finally released a critical examination, performed by a team assembled at the Columbia School of Journalism, on all the journalistic failures regarding a December story on the problem of rape on campus at the University of Virginia. While the original story, “A Rape On Campus” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, reported on multiple rapes on campus, the centerpiece of her story, an alleged gang rape of a girl named “Jackie” at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, came under special scrutiny.

This report doesn’t have much new to offer on Jackie’s story that hasn’t been dug up by other reporters and by the local police: that her friends dispute her version of events, that there wasn’t even a party at Phi Kappa Psi that night, that Erdely didn’t perform her due diligence in investigating the details that Jackie provided her. But the report is thorough, and it’s a great boon to have all the information in one place.

One thing that’s very clear: The culture warriors who were sharpening their knives, eager to use this debacle as a pretext to make the discussion over campus rape about the extremely rare problem of “false accusation,” will be disappointed. Columbia’s investigators, Sheila Coronel, Steve Coll and Derek Kravitz don’t give succor to anti-feminists claiming false accusations are common, writing, “the magazine’s failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations,” and noting that the false report rate on rapes is low, between 2 and 8 percent.

In other words, an episode of bad journalism on a topic doesn’t mean the topic isn”t a legitimate source of further journalistic inquiry–and certainly doesn’t “prove” some inverse claim:

Jackie’s apparent lying will certainly be used against future accusers, who accuse specific men of specific crimes. But that is comparing apples to oranges. We have a story about a woman who probably made things up to get attention and sympathy. That doesn’t prove the widespread allegation that women routinely redefine consensual sex as rape to get revenge.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.