On Monday, the Columbia Journalism Review published a remarkable investigation into Rolling Stone magazine's "avoidable failure" in its thoroughly discredited feature article that centred on allegations of an extended sexual assault at the University of Virginia.
Here is what the report says: "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."
This report should be read by every journalist because it lays out the many steps that should have been taken and offers a good lesson in journalism. Here are some questions and thoughts I take away from it.
1. Don't fall in love with your own prose, your narrative or the scene. Good reporting always comes first and once you have the facts, you can worry about the writing.
2. When you deal with anonymous sources, you become the name and face for the statements published. Do you trust that source with your own reputation and that of your organization?
3. Fact-checking can be a crutch. Reporters and writers are ultimately responsible, but their editors sure help.
4. A great editor challenges, questions and gives the writer a hard time on his or her facts. Writers and editors should be highly skeptical of anyone's statements, be they politicians or those with a story to tell. The best journalists are critical thinkers. When something doesn't seem right, keep asking more questions. Check the details of the story, check with anyone who might have been involved or referenced.
5. Maintain a distance. You are working for the audience, the readers, and not on behalf of the source.
While this is an American publication, which is subject to different rules for libel and slander, it is worth noting that Canada's responsible-communicator defence in libel cases lays out guidelines for investigative and other journalists to follow. Dean Jobb, an associate professor of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax and the author of a reference guide Media Law for Canadian Journalists, provides a good summary on j-source.ca.
This defence is key to citizen bloggers and all other journalists. If a story is considered in the public interest, journalists must show that they acted responsibly in publishing their articles.