Moralistic Therapeutic Journalism
Journalist Anna Walsh, writing for Buzzfeed, calls the Washington Post story demolishing the Rolling Stone rape report a “brutal hit piece,” and says that journalism, by being skeptical and fact-checking, is failing sexual assault survivors like her. Excerpt:
Being a sexual assault survivor and being a journalist are inextricably intertwined for me. When I escaped from an abusive relationship in college, my school newspaper became my saving grace, the one thing that I could cling to as I struggled to process the fact that someone I loved so much had stripped me of my sense of self-worth, my dignity, my safety. I never reported my abuser to the university, even though he was also a student there — my abuse did not leave the physical evidence that seems to be required for any hope of justice — and so, feeling unable to tell my own story, I focused my efforts into telling the stories of others. I wrote long news stories about sexual assault on my college campus, using reporting as a way to assure myself that I wasn’t alone, that my abuse wasn’t my fault. Along the way, I fell in love with journalism’s power to comfort the afflicted and broadcast the truth, something that I thought I would never be able to do in my case of abuse.
My decision a year ago to join Know Your IX, an activist group committed to ending gender-based violence on college campuses, was borne out of the same urge to instigate change and reveal the truth of that violence. And that, too, has become thoroughly entwined in my identity as a journalist. I profile journalists and activists for Know Your IX and write guides for journalists on how to ethically report on gender-based violence; I write about sexual assault for the alt-weekly I now work for. For me, journalism and activism are two sides of the same (perhaps foolish) ideal: bringing the truth to light so that it may help others.
And yet, watching the disintegration of Rolling Stone’s story has been a brutal reminder of the enormous chasm of understanding that too often stands between journalists and survivors.
Anna Walsh, who has been out of college for just over a year, works for the Baltimore City Paper as an “associate editor,” which she says means “the copy editor.” If I were her boss, in light of what’s happened at UVA, I would be utterly chilled by this Buzzfeed piece she’s written. Walsh sees no difference between her journalism and her activism, and no difference between her journalism and her therapy. She sees her “almost exclusively male” colleagues as (implicitly) a pack of sexists who reduced her to a shaking leaf (“I sat for hours with my hands shaking”) because the Rolling Stone disaster caused them to examine their own journalism, like any professional would. And perhaps most amazing of all, she sees no problem as a journalist admitting her bias to the world, and even claiming it as a virtue.
If you have a reporter or an editor who believes her own activism and therapy is more important than observing basic journalistic standards of diligent fact-checking and fairness, you have a very big problem. And if you have a reporter or editor who is so traumatized by her own experience with abuse that she cannot hear colleagues discussing how to cover sex abuse stories in light of this enormously significant Rolling Stone/UVA catastrophe, then you should suggest that she find another line of work, or at least make sure she never gets her hands on a story that has anything to do with sexual violence.
It has been a long time since I had anything to do with college journalism, but I am starting to wonder if this attitude from Walsh, and a similar one from the UVA college paper editor Julia Horowitz, has something to do with their youth and immaturity, or if there is something generational about it. I mean, is it the case that a meaningful number of journalists of that generation see personal bias not as something to guard against and to overcome as part of one’s growth in professionalism and commitment to truth-telling, but rather as a strength? Walsh admits flat-out that her identity as a journalist is “thoroughly entwined” with her activism, but it sounds like it is entwined with her identity, period. Why else would she be reduced to a quivering mess by her journalist colleagues talking about the implications of the RS meltdown for their own approach to journalism? With this Buzzfeed piece, Anna Walsh has now signaled to everyone on her staff that she sees their professionalism as a personal threat. How long will it be before Walsh starts declaring that she feels “unsafe” in her newsroom?
However righteous your cause may be, if you allow your passion for it to turn you into this kind of journalist — which is to say, a propagandist — then you are a liability to your employer, your profession, and to yourself.
Anna Walsh should take a lesson from New Yorker journalist Margaret Talbot, who writes:
More than a decade ago, I wrote about the McMartin preschool case, and other satanic ritual child abuse accusations that turned out to be false. Back then, the slogan many supporters of the accusations brandished was, “Believe the Children.” It was an antidote to skepticism about real claims of child abuse, just as today, “Believe the Victims” is a reaction to a long history of callous oversight of rape accusations. “Believe the Victims” makes sense as a starting presumption, but a presumption of belief should never preclude questions. It’s not wrong or disrespectful for reporters to ask for corroboration, or for editors to insist on it. Truth-seeking won’t undermine efforts to prevent campus sexual assault and protect its victims; it should make them stronger and more effective.