So it appears the Rolling Stone has found itself in quite a pickle.
The discrepancies in the story told by the main source in a piece about failed sexual assault policies at the University of Virginia doesn't completely eliminate the possibility of a problem. However, it damages a whole lot in a relatively small amount of time.
It is a fact that the vast majority of rape accusations are true. These can be counted by the systems that take those reports and prosecute criminals. So regardless of whether or not this particular story is 100 percent true, there's still that.
Not so easily discernible is the amount of newspaper stories, features, etc., that are true versus those that are not. It's not because those things cannot also be counted; it is because no matter how overwhelming the evidence, certain people will believe what they want.
While the Internet may be a fantastic thing, one very negative side-effect is that web surfers can always find the "facts" they want. Go ahead, try it. Think of the most outrageous conspiracy theory ever conceived and there's a page dedicated to proving its truth somewhere in the interwebs.
There's so much noise now, too many "truths." So how can we tell what is real? It's a simple method. The more widespread and mainstream the news source, the more they can be trusted.
Top reporting jobs are not easy to get, and rightfully so. Someone has to put their complete trust into one, two, or for a big story three people on a regular basis and know they won't completely ruin credibility. It takes years of steady growth and hard work to be handed the big assignments.
Are mistakes made? You bet. I just made one the other day when I got dates wrong for election filing. Rolling stone made a much bigger mistake with its story, and they then described why it was made in subsequent apologies.
After all, we in the news business are, despite the claims of some critics, human. But to say that one Rolling Stone mistake means the hundreds and thousands of news stories written every day by reporters across the country are untrue is the same as saying because one fraternity had a rape occur at one of its parties then all fraternities are terrible organizations.
Then again I'm sure if you wanted to go search for reasons why fraternities are terrible organizations, there are many stories from down the years that could lead you to such an unjust conclusion.
Truly dedicated news media has no issue with explaining to you that something may or may not be wrong. It's part of the business because sometimes it happens.
One example is the Drudge Report. A few months back, the top of their web page had a big headline dedicated to how a terrorist attack on the border was imminent.
They quoted secret sources within the Department of Defense and ended on a spiel about how a porous border was to blame. Such an open-ended story is designed to simply get attention and create buzz. But do you think they'd come out later and say their reports may not have been totally accurate?
News organizations that pride themselves on accuracy do offer such corrections, because they actually care about credibility. Understanding the difference is crucial to an operating democracy.