Last fall my son shared with me a shocking story a friend forwarded to him. It was a Rolling Stone article called “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA.” From talking to my son, I sensed that the story had a profound effect on both him and his friends who’d read it.
Journalism is certainly at its best when it shares stories that moves the public to action or at least provides people with a better understanding of what’s happening in the world around them. Conversely, it’s at its worst when it’s found to have made things up or so grossly exaggerated the facts that an entire story is called into question.
In the case of the Rolling Stone article, that’s exactly what happened. No sooner had the shock of the story worn off (and the campus protests ended) than deep questions emerged about the accuracy of the piece. Eventually, it was clear that the story of a gang rape in a fraternity house as published in that magazine completely unraveled.
Now Rolling Stone is doing a mea culpa . . . sort of . . . over the entire incident. This week it published a study by a committee from the highly regarded Columbia School of Journalism which concluded that the magazine failed in almost every journalistic category imaginable. To sum up the report’s very long thoughtful analysis, in writing and publishing this article, “[t]he failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking.”
So what did Rolling Stone do in response to this negative indictment of its editorial and journalistic integrity?
They fired everyone associated with the piece, and pledged going forward to leave no stone unturned in order to insure this never happens again, right?
Uh . . . no.
Actually, no one was fired. All parties involved simply received a very public hand slap and were told never to let this sort of thing happen again.
There are many problems with what happened here. Probably the biggest is that absolutely no one was really held accountable for doing a very bad job. And that’s putting it mildly. Lawsuits are promised to result from this episode as well as a more skeptical view of stories such as this going forward which will truly be terrible if the next such story turns out to be true.
While this is all bad enough, it gets worse. Unfortunately, the Rolling Stone article isn’t the only recent instance where the facts reported bore little or no resemblance to what really happened. Consequently, on a number of fronts, people are jumping on Twitter and marching in the streets over things that may or may not be true. At the same time, truly questionable events are either left uncovered or swept under the media rug because they don’t follow the media’s political agenda.
The job of the journalist is to report the news in an unbiased fashion. In what now feels like a few hundred years ago, I was a journalism major in college. Consequently, I took several college courses where a fundamental idea was pounded in my head. As journalists, we were only supposed to report the news. In no way should we ever be caught trying to make any.
We also were instructed very clearly to take our own biases and emotions out of the stories we were reporting. I’ll never forget one journalism class where the professor stood in front of us and made it very clear.
“If you can’t ask the tough questions of the widow and mother who just found out her entire family was killed in a plane crash, you shouldn’t be a journalist,” he told us.
My response to that instruction? I changed majors. It wasn’t that I couldn’t be unbiased. I just couldn’t stand dealing with tragedy all day in a cold unemotional way.
The good news for our current crop of journalists appears to be that they are no longer made to feel constrained by a system of cold heartless news reporting. Journalists are now free not only to interject their own emotions and biases into stories, but when it serves their purpose, they can even play a little fast and loose with the facts.
The end result of all of this if we continue down this path is that eventually no one (even people who would love to think a story is true) will believe it. They will view everything they read very cynically.
Freedom of speech and the press are bedrocks of our democracy. Because of that, we should demand honesty and truth not just in our elected officials but in the media whose job it is to insure that truth.
Politicians often come and go, but a free press will always be there and thus should not take their responsibility to the furthering of our democracy lightly.