Rolling Stone adds to our heartache

I’ve been a Rolling Stone reader, off and on, for decades.

Mainly, it was for the music, profiles and features on the musicians. Whether or not I cared for the political banter, I never gave it much attention. It wasn’t what Rolling Stone was about, for me at least.

Nearly every issue, too, they would have a hard-hitting, investigative piece. Those were always intriguing, especially to a life-long journalist.

I would find myself in the midst of a criminal piece, surrounded by a murder-mystery or uncovering an injustice in a way that was actually going to matter and affect change, and I would be insanely jealous that the reporter was given the time and latitude to work on such an enterprise piece.

Reading newspapers and magazines used to come with all the confidence of the highest order of the Fourth Estate. It wasn’t Meet the Press. It wasn’t The McLaughlin Group. Print journalism was pure and good and right.

And, in a lot of ways, it still is. But man, this Rolling Stone debacle sure hurts. In fact, the retraction and scathing Columbia University report on litany of missteps made by numerous staffers of the magazine not only does damage to an already struggling industry, it will surely hurt in the realm of reporting sexual assaults.

And it could have all been avoided.

Reading through the highlights of the Columbia School of Journalism’s report on Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” account of an alleged attack at the University of Virginia last November, it’s shocking to me that the most basic tenants of writing, reporting, editing and, most importantly, verifying, were completely and utterly disregarded.

And that it was happening at such an institute of journalism is supremely disappointing.

When I first heard Rolling Stone was completely walking away from its reporting of “Jackie” and her story of a gang rape at a fraternity party in 2012, I immediately went where others – current and former – go when we bemoan this type of bad press about the press. I went to the current state of our industry, where somehow “doing more with less” (even though, as a former publisher I can tell you those are the most idiotic words ever uttered) and we think we are still going to deliver quality journalism as we continue to slash and burn through our newsrooms.

We aren’t. But that’s not where Rolling Stone failed.

They simply didn’t follow the rules. It’s maddening now to read this report and realize it wasn’t budget cuts or staffing that led to this shoddy storytelling. It was lazy work from the top to the bottom – the editors, writers and fact-checkers. Hell, that Rolling Stone still has fact checkers is a testament to its commitment to journalistic excellence. Except in this case.

Recently I spoke on a panel with two other journalists about our experiences in covering the racial tensions, riots and after-effects of the officer-involved shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. With a room full of journalists and student-journalists, I decided to take the opportunity to opine a bit on what I believe students should be learning and what they may or may not be getting in the classroom as they head into the real world.

This report from Columbia on the failing of a respected magazine should move to the top of the list in every journalism classroom.

The next generation of journalists are going to be held just as responsible as every writer that has come before them. And they will have to perform those tasks under a larger microscope than we could have ever imagined. Social media is just one of the many weights on their shoulders.

Young journalists must demand that accuracy is still the single biggest burden in their lives. They have to feel it every moment of their existence and demand that those that work above them hold it so sacred that we can never, ever, let “A Rape on Campus” go to press with such storytelling holes looming over the piece and with so many unanswered questions and doubts haunting the writer.

I’ve had enough of being disappointed when these travesties hit journalism. I’m done making excuses for writers that don’t respect the industry or continually use it for personal gain and not the greater good.

My saving grace is knowing there are still plenty of good journalists doing plenty of good journalism. But it’s not easy. It shouldn’t be. And the instant we let our guard down, we will lose our way, our credibility and our proud profession.

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