Please Read The ‘CJR’ Report About ‘Rolling Stone’

“The particulars of Rolling Stone’s failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail.”

That line from the Columbia Journalism Review‘s dissection of Rolling Stone‘s infamous investigation of an alleged gang rape underscores why the CJR report is highly recommended reading. It reminds us that the basics matter — a lot.

CJR concludes that “better and clearer policies about reporting practices, pseudonyms and attribution might well have prevented the magazine’s errors. … Stronger policy and clearer staff understanding in at least three areas might have changed the final outcome.” From the report:

– “Pseudonyms. [Editors] said using pseudonyms at Rolling Stone is a ‘case by case’ issue that requires no special convening or review. Pseudonyms are inherently undesirable in journalism. They introduce fiction and ask readers to trust that this is the only instance in which a publication is inventing details at its discretion. Their use in this case was a crutch — it allowed the magazine to evade coming to terms with reporting gaps. Rolling Stone should consider banning them. If its editors believe pseudonyms are an indispensable tool for its forms of narrative writing, the magazine should consider using them much more rarely and only after robust discussion about alternatives, with dissent encouraged.”

– “Checking Derogatory Information. [The reporter and her editor] made the fateful agreement not to check [a key part of the accuser's story that put three people in an unfavorable light] with the three friends. If the fact-checking department had understood that such a practice was unacceptable, the outcome would almost certainly have changed.”

– “Confronting Subjects With Details. When [the reporter] sought ‘comment,’ she missed the opportunity to hear challenging, detailed rebuttals from [the fraternity] before publication. The fact-checker relied only on [the reporter's] communications with the fraternity and did not independently confirm with Phi Kappa Psi the account Rolling Stone intended to publish. … If both the reporter and checker had understood that by policy they should routinely share specific, derogatory details with the subjects of their reporting, Rolling Stone might have veered in a different direction.”

Our Ethics Handbook deals with those points. Here is where NPR stands:

– “Don’t Create Pseudonyms For Sources Whose Names We Withhold.  When we decide to withhold a source’s name from a story, we don’t invent a pseudonym for that source. Again, our job is to present factual – not fabricated – information. Instead, we use pronouns and descriptions to make clear who is speaking or whom we’re referring to. (Or we may refer to him or her without using a last name, if the source is comfortable with that degree of anonymity, and the situation meets our standards for granting anonymity. … )”

– “No Attacks. In our coverage, anonymous or unnamed sources generally cannot make pejorative comments about the character, reputation, or personal qualities of another individual, or derogatory statements about an institution. … [Exceptions are made only after] careful deliberation with senior news managers.”

– “Give Sources Time To Respond. If our audience wonders what someone we report about had to say in his or her defense, and we haven’t provided that information or explained our efforts to get it, we have failed.”

Give Subjects Enough Information To Be Able To Respond Effectively. “In 2005, NPR aired a story about the new editor of the Paris Review. Former staffers of the magazine — some of whom had been let go — were heard saying that the new leader was ‘betraying the vision’ of the Review’s founder, George Plimpton. What was the editor’s response to that charge? He didn’t get the chance to say. Our interview with him was done before the critics were contacted, and the editor wasn’t contacted again. NPR subsequently apologized on the air for not giving the editor the chance to answer his critics. As Bill Marimow, then-NPR vice president for news, said: ‘If the subject of the story doesn’t know what you’re going to report, how can we be fair to them?’ “

CJR‘s analysis makes clear that several people are to blame for Rolling Stone‘s failures, starting with the reporter and extending to her editors. So here’s another reminder from our handbook:

Edit Like A Prosecutor.

“Great journalism comes in part from the collaborative efforts of reporters, editors and producers, who all play a key role in ensuring accuracy. We believe in teamwork. But good editors are also good prosecutors. They test, probe and challenge reporters, always with the goal of making NPR’s stories as good (and therefore as accurate) as possible.”

(Memmos; April 7, 2015)

April 7, 2015

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