Rolling Stone and Agricultural Journalism

By now, I suspect most of you are aware of the Rolling Stone, rape story saga (here's a timeline of the events).  To recap, Rolling Stone ran a story about a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity.  The story caused a national outcry, leading to vandalism of the fraternity, protests across the nation, and a suspension of the fraternity system at UVA.  However, after the initial outcry, a number of news sources began to question the veracity of Rolling Stone's account.  Most prominently, the Washington Post ran a number of stories, and eventually showed that the victim's story (at least as initially reported) was fallacious.  Rolling Stone has apologized for running the story.

Reading various accounts of the on goings, it seems that Rolling Stone, and the journalist - Sabrina Erdely - who wrote the story, got at least two things wrong.  First, the journalist went into the story with an agenda. It seems the magazine's editors were predisposed to believe there was a "rape culture" and only needed a good story to back it up.  Sources suggest that Erdely wanted to do a story on campus rape and went from campus to campus to find the "right" one. As one source put it,  

But Erdely was committed by her own admission to finding a story that would confirm her preconceptions about a campus violent crime wave against women.

Second, the journalist only told one side of the story.  As Megan McArdle put it:

Unfortunately, reporting by others suggests that Erdely didn’t do one of the basic things that reporters do to try to keep fabrications or exaggerations out of our stories: Check with the other side.

A number of people have said that the details of the case are a distraction and it is the bigger issue that one should focus on.  But, as McArdle wrote:

Nor am I very convinced by the people — including Erdely — who have argued that focusing on Jackie’s story is getting us “sidetracked” from “the real story,” which is about the rape culture at UVA and the slothful institutional reaction to Jackie’s story. The story was headlined “A Rape on Campus.” The first thousand words are devoted to Jackie’s horrifying story, and much of the rest of the story is devoted to Jackie’s descent into depression and her interactions with the deans. If the story is so irrelevant to the real point of the article, then it should have been pulled out when the victim refused to provide details that would have permitted the author to contact the accused for comment.

But of course, if Jackie’s story had been pulled out, the article wouldn’t have received anything like the attention it got

OK, so what does any of this have to do with the sorts of things I normally discuss on this blog?

I'd argue that something analogous often happens in the reporting of stories related to food and agriculture, particularly animal agriculture.  It is not a perfect analogy, and I am in no way drawing a moral equivalency with rape.  What I am getting at is the way journalists tell stories and how their editors choose whether to run them.

It is not as if Rolling Stone is too removed from food reporting.  They ran their own expose on meat and animal cruelty just last year.  In a story titled In the Belly of the Beast the lede goes as follows:

A small band of animal rights activists have been infiltrating the factory farms where animals are turned into meat under the most horrific circumstances. Now the agribusiness giants are trying to crush them.

I'm not claiming that the stories told in the Rolling Stone piece aren't true (in some cases they likely have videos and pictures to back their claims).  Some of the events are horrific and may well be prosecutable offenses.   But to what extent are they symptomatic of a broader "cruelty culture" and of the industry more generally, as the story seems to suggest?  

Is there a more general pattern to how these stories are told? It is likely that the authors went in to the piece with a story to tell, and lo and behold they found one. It likely fit a preconceived narrative that the publishers believed.  To what extent did the authors reach out to get the "other side of the story?"  There seems to be little attempt to systematically do that (though they do cite an episode from Nighteline where a reporter confronted a dairy owner).  Again, I'm not saying the particular stories they tell are incorrect, but what I am asking is whether the article indicts the entire industry as the story seems to suggest?  After all, the story ends with an indictment of the present agricultural system and a call for an alternative sort of system.

This isn't just about this particular Rolling Stone story on animal cruelty.  Look, for example, at this piece by Jon Entine at, where he shows video footage of Michael Pollan, an ardent critic of today's commercial agricultural system, outright admitting that much of the journalism about food and agriculture doesn't have to tell both sides.  According to Entine, Pollan said in an interview:

The media has really been on our side for the most part. I know this from writing for the New York Times where I’ve written about a lot of other topics. But when I wrote about food I never had to give equal time to the other side. I could say whatever I thought and offer my own conclusions. Say you should buy grass feed beef and organic is better, and these editors in New York didn’t realize there is anyone who disagrees with that point of view. So I felt like I got a free ride for a long time.

That was precisely the problem with the Rolling Stone rape story.  The writer got a "free ride" because the story fit a narrative already believed to be true.  

I have no problems with journalists writing true stories of injustice or cruelty in food and agriculture.  And, I am not a fan of the "ag gag" laws.  What I caution is making broad claims about industry-wide behavior without the evidence to support it.