3 lessons to learn from Rolling Stone’s mistake

Unless you were binge watching Mad Men in preparation for the series finale, you may have noticed that Sunday was a big day for journalists everywhere.

In particular for those who practice journalism every day, that means each and everyone of you.

Rolling Stone published the report from Columbia University detailing what went wrong in their production and publication of the University of Virginia campus rape story.

Don’t remember? Here’s the gist: Rolling Stone mag published a story in November detailing rape culture on a college campus, centering around a source named “Jackie” and an incident, a gang rape, which happened at a fraternity house. According to the source, the incident was orchestrated by a fellow student who was a lifeguard and a member of the fraternity. After it published, the Washington Post printed an article calling into question some of the facts in the story. As a result, the mag asked the Columbia j-school deans to do some digging, asking them to find out what went wrong with the story.  For more info, NPR did a great piece on it.

The report is shocking to read as a journalist and I encourage everyone to read it to learn from it. The more than 2,000 word article is in depth and detailed. Right away, however, I see three lessons from this that will help everyone reading this be a better journalist right now, this very second.

More than one source always, always always.

I know you’ve heard me harp on this all the time — three sources, at least, in every story. Rolling Stone’s story is an example of why.

“Jackie” was the main source in the story and, arguably, the only. Although it was written from her point of view, the only voice was hers — not her assailant, the university, the friends she reportedly told, the police. Just hers.

This is always a no-no. The saying that there is more than one side to a story is true. Always. So only having one or two is never enough. Have three sides to a story, three sources who are impacted by what going on gives the reader a fuller story. On a story like one that would run in Rolling Stone, it’s not uncommon to have 5 -7  sources minimum.

So, when you hear from your editor or me about having more sources, it’s not because we’re making you do extra work, it’s because we’re being good journalists and want you to be one too.

Also having more than one source is important because…

Never trust, always check it out

According to the report, the source did not/refused to give the report the name of the person who reportedly planned her attack. When the reporter brought this to the editor’s attention, he okay-ed it and asked the reporter to continue reporting.

Everything else seemed credible, the reporter said in recent interview. The story her source told was chilling. Who could make that up? Also the source was mentioned in a Senate hearing which added to the credibility.

Bottomline, people can be good liars. Whether they intended to lie or not, our jobs is to check it out.

How many times did a source say one thing and meant something else? How many times did YOU say something or think something, swore it was correct, only for it to be wrong? That’s called being human. Guess what? So are sources. Here’s what I’m not saying: everyone is lying to you on purpose. Here’s what I am saying: even if you believe them, check it out.

Talking to other sources, checking databases (that includes phone books), checking the archives, all of these are ways journalists have to double check a source.

This seems like it’s all the reporter’s fault. Not entirely because…

Credibility is everyone’s job.

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.

 –From the Columbia University report

When I read this line specifically, it reminded me that putting out a publication — magazine, newsletter or newspaper — is a team effort. Everyone is responsible for an error.

Another thing about that quote that hit home for was the word avoidable. There are so many things in life, and in reporting that aren’t — sources canceling interviews, family emergencies, etc. But those things that we can easily avoid, we should. That includes double and triple checking basic facts and properly sourcing stories among other things.  

What do you think about the Rolling Stone article? The fallout from it? What else can we learn from this mistake?

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About Icess Fernandez Rojas

Icess is a writer, professor, and blogger. She is a graduate of Goddard College's MFA program. Her work has been published in Rabble Lit, Minerva Rising Literary Journal, and the Feminine Collective's anthology Notes from Humanity. Her nonfiction has appeared in Dear Hope, NBCNews.com, HuffPost and the Guardian. She is a recipient of the Owl of Minerva Award, a VONA/Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation alum, and is also a Kimbilio Fellow. She's currently working on her first novel.