Rolling Stone’s flawed story and its reaction to a critical report make teaching journalism to the ‘instant gratification’ generation even more difficult
• It’s okay to write 9,000 words and base the principal thrust of the story on only one source.
• It’s okay to take instructions from your one source to not speak to those who might undermine the source’s claims.
• It’s okay to shop for the best circumstances to write a story based on your own biased, preconceived narrative.
• It’s okay, because when the story blows up as dead wrong and leads to national and international condemnation, don’t worry: You won’t get fired, and your publication will feel no need to address the gaping holes in its “editorial apparatus.”
Rolling Stone sought to to address the viral condemnation of the piece that erupted following careful reporting by The Washington Post’s T. Reese Shapiro that debunked the accuracy and credibility of Erdely’s reporting. Rolling Stone asked Pulitzer winner Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, to examine the story — its genesis, its reporting, its editing, its fact checking. The report, written by Coll, Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs at Columbia University, and Derek Kravitz, a postgraduate research scholar, excoriated the “editorial apparatus” at Rolling Stone and the higher-ups who oversee it. From the 12,000-word report:
Rolling Stone’s repudiation of the main narrative in “A Rape on Campus” is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking. The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all. The published story glossed over the gaps in the magazine’s reporting by using pseudonyms and by failing to state where important information had come from.
The report has inflamed many who’ve read it. Among them is Jay Rosen at PressThink, whose post provides a more than adequate summary of the report and reactions to it.
I’m more concerned with a principal failure in this story: comparison shopping to support a biased thesis that did not result from unbiased preliminary reporting:
Erdely went shopping, and UVA — “a public school, Southern and genteel” — became the chosen frame for the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. Erdely chose the extraordinary rather than the ordinary. Rolling Stone editors allowed the choice — perhaps because a medium dependent on advertising to fund its business model seeks to maximize shock value. The extraordinary produces far more page views than the ordinary.
Several thousand men and women, including me, teach tens of thousands of undergraduates at several hundred journalism programs in the United States. We teach those who belong to a generation whose “fear of missing out” often leaves them bereft of the ability to wisely assess credibility of information. We teach those who devour digital information hours at a time using multiple screens. We teach a generation that is impatient, one that demands something happen right now.
Rolling Stone is not the only publishing entity prone to one-source principal reporting. The haste to get those page views right now, coupled with the shedding of tens of thousands of newsroom jobs since 2007, has led to pressure to publish before the damn story’s locked down solid. That was Rolling Stone’s failure.
How do we reinforce in undergraduates beset with impatience the attitude that sound reporting requires infinite patience? That it takes one more phone call, one more text, one more email, one more interview, one more source … just to be sure the story’s right.
Rolling Stone made the task of teaching journalism immeasurably more difficult by failing to practice basic tradecraft. Too many of my undergrads think it’s okay to pitch an idea that’s a preconceived attitude and do what Erdely did — shop for circumstances that support the bias. That’s wrong in the news business, and always should be.