This has been both a good and a very bad season for journalists.
One one hand, we have the Rolling Stone takeout about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, which the magazine now concedes may not have happened at all. On the other hand, we have the podcast “Serial,’’ which re-investigates a 1990s murder case in Baltimore, and proves that a good nonfiction yarn, doled out right, can be a sensation.
Both are stories about young people, enormous accusations, and a fundamental question: Whether our institutions are capable of adjudicating crime, doing it fairly, getting it right.
But they’ve also become stories about journalism itself, the process and the pitfalls, the challenge at its core. What makes one story rise, and one spectacularly fall, is the relationship between journalist and source.
Every experienced reporter knows how delicate that relationship can be, built on a scaffolding of trust. Beat reporters have to be both fair and unsparing, so that the inevitable negative story won’t drive a source away forever. Investigative reporters traffick in sensitive information, deal with people who might be self-serving or might have good reason to stay silent.
The reporting process, then, can involve wooing, cajoling, negotiating; in her 1990 book “The Journalist and the Murderer,” Janet Malcolm argued that the journalist’s role is morally indefensible. Whether or not she’s right, the process is delicate. Years ago, I asked a veteran investigative reporter if I could sit silently in the room while he interviewed a source. He politely said no. He was so attuned to the mood in the room, his on-the-fly reading of personality and reaction, that he worried an outsider would throw the whole thing off.
Judging from WashingtonPostaccounts — and Rolling Stone’s evolving retraction — the magazine also worried that its source would run away. The article was based on a UVA student named Jackie, who claimed to have been brutally attacked at a 2012 fraternity party. “In trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault,” managing editor Will Dana wrote, Rolling Stone — its reporter, editors, and, presumably, its lawyers — decided to honor “Jackie’s request to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account.”
This is the opposite of journalism ethics and good practice, but it does fit the ethos of modern culture, where “trigger warnings” precede sensitive topics, and even comedians get backlash for touching verboten subjects. (In an interview with New York Magazine this month, Chris Rock griped that “you can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.”)
This impulse to protect is usually well-meaning. Let’s assume, in Rolling Stone’s case, that it was. But one-sidedness also served the story, as it was written: an unambiguous tale of good versus evil, no questions or denials to muddy it up.
What “Serial’’ shows, so well and at the perfect time, is that it’s possible to build honest relationships, acknowledge those ambiguities, and produce a story that’s both compelling and fair.
The podcast, an offshoot of This American Life, reviews the case of Adnan Syed, convicted at age 17 of strangling his ex-girlfriend in her car and burying her body in a shallow grave. He is serving a life sentence, but still proclaims his innocence. With the casual air of someone chatting at Starbucks, reporter Sarah Koenig walks us through the process of investigating his case: She reviews tapes and transcripts, interviews players and experts, talks to Syed himself, in conversations recorded over the prison phone system.
As Koenig sifts through evidence that seems exculpatory and evidence that seems damning, she never hides her own uncertainty, the fact that her views of Syed’s guilt swing widely, depending on what she’s seen last, or what he’s said. She describes him as charming and smart, comes to believe that she knows him, is taken aback, in one episode, when he retorts that she’s basically a stranger.
Syed is skeptical, as a smart source should be. He knows that Koenig isn’t truly on his side. “You go from my savior to my executioner . . . flip flop, like Mitt Romney,” he tells her in this most recent episode.
Listeners do, too — we’re all reporters by proxy here. When “Serial’’ ends its season next week, it seems clear that we won’t have a clear answer about Syed’s guilt or innocence. All we’ll know is that the questions raised have been illuminating.
That, at their best, is what journalists do.
Related:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.