In the world of mass communications, there is a theory called Agenda-Setting Theory. It describes the ability of the mass media to set the tone and agenda of the day’s talking points. It’s fairly easy to understand, given that so many people are still connected to the news and what goes on in the world around them. The degree to which people are connected to the news and the media may vary, but it still holds true for the largest portion of society.
The Media, in many cases, seems to have interpreted this as meaning it is their job to set the agenda. The Rolling Stone (a music magazine) has (for reasons that escape me) dipped its toes into political culture time and again, only for it to reflect rather poorly on them. The University of Virginia gang rape story, horrific as it was, is now nothing more than an elaborate hoax in its best-case scenario.
The Post story doesn’t connect all the dots, but it’s not hard to do. Jackie has now given her friends two different names for the man she was with that night. Neither of them was in fact with her, ever dated her, or even knew her all that well. She appears to have invented a suitor, complete with fake text messages and a fake photo, which suggests a capacity for somewhat elaborate deception. Jackie, though, has not recanted her story. Her attorney would not answer questions for the Post‘s story on Wednesday and has told reporters to stop contacting Jackie.
Rolling Stone acknowledged Friday that Erdely did not try contacting the alleged attackers for comment because of an agreement with Jackie, who had expressed fears of reprisal.
Such an agreement is unusual because journalists are expected to approach the other side for comment, especially when preparing to publish allegations as damaging as a horrific gang rape. Both Erdely and Rolling Stone deputy managing editor Sean Woods, who edited the UVA story, had suggested in interviews before Friday that Erdely had actually tried, but failed, to reach the alleged perpetrators.
This is what’s wrong with active agenda setting versus passive. When you go out of your way to make a story happen, and you ignore your duties as a journalist in the process, you end up with egg on your face at best. At worst… well, you don’t lose your career in this case, because Sabrina Erdely tried to set the right agenda (by the Left’s standards). In a just world, she’d have been gone by now.
This aggressive agenda setting isn’t just limited to Rolling Stone, but it is probably the biggest example by far that we can find because it has blown up across liberal media as well. Even Ben Smith’s journalistic behavior toward Uber wasn’t as questionable as this. Erdely wrote a narrative piece that was entirely fabricated and went completely unverified until a totally different publications decided to go for it.
But, what will the Amanda Marcotte’s of the world do? They’ll scream louder that it’s the moral of the story, not the story itself, that should be paid attention to. The fact that rape is a thing that exists is reason enough for stories about horrifying rape, regardless of the truth behind those stories. There is a cost to pushing this type of agenda (not the rape culture agenda, but the narrative and moral agenda), and one’s credibility is just the tip of the iceberg. You have so many issues that arise from this. Those of lesser media awareness may only see skepticism of a “rape victim’s” story and become too afraid to report their own. Some people may take rape allegations less seriously because of this. Some may simply stop believing stories like this at all, leaving room for it to happen with Boy-Who-Cried-Wolf results.
That kind of agenda-driven journalism is what is killing the industry and making the jobs of other journalists more difficult. There will come a day (assuming you don’t believe it is already here) where journalists will have to prove to the public they can be trusted, and that trust will be harder to gain. The Sabrina Erdely’s of the world are actively hurting journalism*.
*I readily point out that I am a journalist by trade and training and that I hold a great deal of love for the industry, despite my utter distaste for the practices of the big names in the industry. My respect for the job and what ordinary journalists have to go through is not a popular one on this website (if the comments I always get on these kind of pieces are any indication), but I stand by it because journalism is something that is supposed to provide a vital service… Accountability and Truth.