Rolling Stone lesson: Tracking down facts does matter — a lot
April 9, 2015
By Gene Policinski
Inside the First Amendment
An old slam on tabloid journalism was that its best practitioners "never let the facts get in the way of a good story."
Thanks to Rolling Stone magazine's abject retraction of a 2014 article, "A Rape on Campus," we now are offered a new twist on that old saw — never let a lack of facts get in the way, either.
A critique of the article by a three-person team from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, commissioned and released by Rolling Stone itself, boils down to this: The magazine's editors and the reporter on the story failed to perform the most basic journalistic task — essentially, to verify and present factual information.
The report relentlessly documents the magazine's failure to follow "basic, even routine journalistic practice" — a failure that "encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking."
And it says that "the story's blowup comes as another shock to journalism's credibility amid head-swiveling change in the media industry. The particulars of Rolling Stone's failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual level of detail."
Let's parse those observations. Failure to follow the basics — check. Another shocking assault on journalism's credibility — check. A need to revisit and reinforce best journalistic practices — double check. And there's ample evidence of "head-swiveling change." No need to even "check" that.
But there are even larger concerns raised by the nearly 13,000-word Columbia J-school report — a document longer, The New York Times quickly noted, than the original 9,000-word article.
Clearly, in a drive for the kind of sensational "narrative" account that Rolling Stone and a host of other news operations require, the magazine tossed aside long-validated newsgathering approaches that would have conflicted, complicated, and perhaps eviscerated, the kind of account they intended to get and eventually published.
There has been no lack of reports for some time about the problem of under-reported campus sexual assaults and sexual violence, and complaints about non-responsive or insensitive college officials. And the report concludes that "the responsibilities that universities have in preventing campus sexual assault ... are important matters of public interest. Rolling Stone was right to take them on."
But in a journalism world increasingly defined and validated by a collection of "clicks" and "hits" and algorithmic formulas, was it the need to ramp up the drama, to boost the hype, search out what the report called the "single, emblematic college rape case" that ultimately teased these heretofore solid journalists to betray a core obligation to their readers?
The report touches on that idea, in noting that "'A Rape on Campus' had ambitions beyond recounting one woman's assault." It says that "the magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices that, if pursued, likely would 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."
Narrative journalism is a form of news reporting that aims to go beyond the "Who, What, When, Where, Why and How" basic recitation of facts to engage readers in storytelling that attracts, entices and perhaps even enthralls, as it reports.
While such a narrative approach has become the accepted wisdom of 21st century news media gurus seeking the key to rebuilding audiences, its roots were firmly set a century ago, by the so-called "muckrakers" of the Progressive Era of the early 1900s.
McClure's magazine grabbed the nation's attention by its riveting reports that investigated official corruption, documented high-level financial shenanigans and that exposed horrific business practices — all based on a storytelling format buttressed by what one historian called "overwhelming facts." Journalists, including Lincoln Stephens, Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair, wrote compelling accounts that inspired antitrust laws, led to criminal indictments and demanded new laws on public health and safety.
One historian of the period says McClure's success was due to its reliance on "overwhelming facts" presented in the format of a short-story. Other experts note that as with Rolling Stone's style, there was no less a point-of-view in the muckrakers' work — they cared less about objectivity than they did firmly documenting the ills they found through extensive, thorough investigation.
Compare those assessments with the follow up report's documentation ofRolling Stone's over-reliance on a single source, whose principal contribution to the retracted article now appears to have been a story that was too good not to use — or even seriously question.
The Columbia team's report noted that "there is a tension in magazine and narrative editing between crafting a readable story ... it can be clunky and disruptive to write 'she said' over and over. There should be room in magazine journalism for diverse narrative voicing — if the underlying reporting is solid."
That's as good a definition as possible on the difference between "raking muck" and just stirring it up.
Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.