Monday, April 06, 2015

Rolling Stone retracted the UVA rape story but basically thinks it did nothing wrong? The problem with journalism (or blogging) that goes for the "emblematic" story.

Rolling Stone's Sensational Failure

Journalists are constantly tempted to tell sensational, unrepresentative stories as if they're emblematic of a person, an institution, or a culture.

That's probably the "nice" way of putting what seems to have happened here.

Rolling Stone and UVA: The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Report

Rolling Stone Retracts Discredited University of Virginia Rape Article

Rolling Stone’s ‘A Rape on Campus.’ Notes and comment on Columbia J-school’s investigation.

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. 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.

A “Journalistic Failure” Won’t Get You Fired From Rolling Stone (But a Bad Review Could)

This gets at a problem that Wenatchee The Hatchet saw in the majority of blogging that was done about Mars Hill in the last five years, which is not to say that blogging did not make significant contributions to the public discourse.  Correction, this was frequently an even bigger problem in mainstream journalistic coverage dealing with Mars Hill.  Too much of the coverage was just about Driscoll, as though Driscoll could have risen or fallen as an isolated individual instead of as a catalyst for systems or as a brand freighted with symbolic expectation.  Driscoll was held up as the poster boy for "new Calvinists" or for any number of things and that emblematic function was so important to media coverage that it didn't necessarily matter how factually accurate that presentation was.  Ergo years of progressives imagining that Mark Driscoll had sounded off on something or other about Gayle Haggard letting herself go.  It's not something Driscoll ever said but it was symbolically important for a certain branch of media coverage and blogging to insist it happened because of its symbolic significance for them.

Wenatchee The Hatchet spent a few years discussing Mars Hill and how one of the things that has been done over the years is controlling a narrative of what Mars Hill was and what it was supposed to signify.  One of the things discussed at some length here has been how the narrative of Mars Hill shifted in the last ten years from a story of a community mediated by a Driscoll to the story of a community distilled into a Driscollian narrative about the Driscoll family itself.  This shift was neither subtle nor without consequence.
Look what’s going on with this Rolling Stone situation [the story about the gang rape of a woman at the University of Virginia]. People are so shocked by it, but it was out for a week… It took about a week of shock for people to start looking into it… We’re so driven by the idea that one person’s story can guide an entire narrative. Sometimes it can. But in a big, reported piece like that, it can’t. It’s interesting to me that it took a week almost for people to move beyond this one person’s story. [emphasis added]

If you get too indulgent with your feelings… The reader needs to know that the writer is in charge; authority. So they have to be confident that you’re not going to say something that makes the reader cringe, or makes you feel sorry for the writer… It’s very much about control, deciding which details to reveal. It’s not visceral. If it just “poured out of me,” a lot of it should be cleared out. It should not just pour out.
What Wenatchee The Hatchet has labored for years to avoid is to get caught between the Scylla and Charybdys of hanging too much on a single narrative as emblematic of the whole on the one hand, or trafficking in the kind of internet outrage that has too often been characteristic not just of blogging but of even journalistic coverage of controversial issues on the other.  The shortcoming of this approach, perhaps all too obviously, is that it's not sexy to focus on the boring details of real estate acquisitions and associated leadership appointments and trajectories when you could be talking about the big guy with the big mouth.  Well, in many cases he was just not quite interesting enough to be bothered with.  If you tried writing about what Mars Hill was in institutional terms then focusing on Driscoll was a liability because his stage presence could distract from the nuts and bolts of what was going on.

To some degree Matthew Paul Turner's coverage of the Andrew disciplinary case could be a case in point.  It was scandalous and presented as emblematic of an overall problem but "if" it was emblematic it was potentially so not as something unusual about church discipline as practiced in the organization, there may have been subterranean fears that it shed some light on what was NORMAL.  The scandals of Mars Hill and its leadership culture were, perhaps, not what was unusual and symbolic but what was so ordinary as to not get mentioned.  If there was a reason for scandal it wasn't the shocking individual case but the ordinary turning gears of the machine that should have been cause for concern.  In neither the case of Mars Hill nor of campus rape has it seemed to be the case that the eye-grabbing "emblematic" story was the most significant thing going on.  The full scope of the things that happened may prove elusive but what journalists and bloggers can try to do moving forward (or try to do better) is to pursue the facts as steadily and thoroughly as possible and resist temptations to boil down, to distill the narrative to something that seems cogent and powerful but may not, in the end, turn out to actually be true. 

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