One of the dangers of investigative reporting is falling in love with your source — and your story.
You spend days, weeks or months cultivating a whistle-blower or plaintiff and accuser and becoming convinced that it’s your duty to tell the tale. There is a natural human tendency to minimize inconsistencies in the person’s account. The excitement of breaking a big one begins to build.
That’s why you need a Jason Robards editor to say, “You ain’t got it, kid.”
And that’s what Rolling Stone was lacking in deciding to publish Sabrina Erdely’s 9,000-word dramatization of an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, essentially based on the word of a single source. The editorial brain trust royally screwed up.
“That failure is on us—not her,” Managing Editor Will Dana acknowledged on Twitter.
Dana, interestingly enough, gave a 2006 address at Middlebury College titled “In Defense of Biased Reporting.” Here’s what he said:
“For ‘bias,’ maintains Dana, ‘does not mean unbalanced.’ If anything. it sets the bar higher for Rolling Stones’ writers. They have to exercise extreme depth of analysis and reporting in writing their stories. In fact, confided Dana, his all-time favorite stories are those which deliberately framed extremely controversial issues in a manner which was both emotive and unabashedly honest.”