Do scandals like Rolling Stone’s do lasting damage to journalism?

Rolling Stone graphic

Journalism has taken a lot of hits in recent memory. In the last year alone, there were Brian Williams’ fabrications about his experiences in the Iraq war, the implosion of The New Republic, and a number of high-profile plagiarism cases, such as those of Fareed Zakaria and Benny Johnson. Added to the list this week: Columbia Journalism School’s damning report on how Rolling Stone botched its tale of an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia.

In wake of this most recent high-profile blunder, CJR’s editorial staff wondered about the long-term impact of this and other such media scandals. What development of the past few years has done the most damage to the institution of journalism? We asked media writers, analysts, and educators to gauge how Rolling Stone stacks up against the rest. While many agreed Rolling Stone’s failure harmed the media’s reputation, they also said it and the industry could repair the damage. The larger threats to journalism, many of them added, are more gradual systemic changes, from the implosion of business models to false balance in public “controversies.”

Rolling Stone’s blatant journalistic failure was not a symptom of the downward spiral-developments of the industry at large—in which time, editing, and factchecking have become increasingly scarce. The magazine’s numerous missteps had nothing to do with a lack of resources: Sabrina Rubin Erdely spent six months on her story, which went through several drafts, multiple editors, and a factcheck.

So what have been the most damaging developments in the industry? And where does Rolling Stone fit in terms of its lasting impact?

Kelly McBride, media ethicist and VP of academic programs at the Poynter Institute
I was trying to think if [Rolling Stone] is worse than Brian Williams. I agree as a media insider that the Rolling Stone debacle reveals a bigger problem within Rolling Stone than Williams’ debacle revealed with NBC News. But from an audience’s perspective, the breach of trust seems to be at the same level. How audiences develop relationships with their news providers has to do with probably 20 or more different factors. Some of that has to do with delivery and platform, some of that has to do with personality, some of that has to do with style, and some of that has to do with trust. If you were just going to measure trust out of all of those different things—and first of all it’s impossible to isolate—there’s no way to actually measure it.

I think Rolling Stone is going to have a very difficult time of communicating to its audience that it’s taking this seriously. That doesn’t mean it can’t.

The New York Times had Jayson Blair. USAToday had Jack Kelley. The New Republic had Stephen Glass. All of those weren’t that long ago. All of those organizations recovered. I think Rolling Stone is going to have a very difficult time of communicating to its audience that it’s taking this seriously. That doesn’t mean it can’t. It took months for anyone to be fired over Jayson Blair. It didn’t happen in the immediate aftermath. It took an internal revolt for that to happen.

Jack Shafer, senior media writer at Politico
If you look at the Gallup polls of trust in institutions over the last 30 years, you see that trust in the press has been falling steadily. And that looks really impressive until you see that all institutions have suffered a loss of faithfulness from the congregation—the military, lawyers, doctors, the whole nine yards. So I don’t think these individual incidents are having much of an effect.

You could argue that some of these incidents have strengthened journalism. If there ever was a pompous position in the industry, it was the news reader on the nightly news. And now, you may have audiences saying, “Well, they live and the breathe and they piss and they shit, just like us.” Where do people learn to be less respectful of Congress or doctors or lawyers? I think they’re learning that from the press, largely. And that’s a good thing. But our profession is no different than the others.

Bob Garfield, co-host of WNYC’s On the Media
This episode, and the CJR post-mortem, is another black eye for journalism. But journalism was already so battered and abused by outside assaults and self-inflicted wounds, I doubt anyone outside journalistic and academic circles will much notice. The list of scandals is so long—Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley, Stephen Glass, Judith Miller, the Atlanta bombing coverage, the Duke lacrosse team coverage, the Gary Condit crucifixion—that the Rolling Stone effect will likely be transitory and marginal. Not so for victims of campus sexual assault, unfortunately. That damage will be tragically enduring.

The greater damage to journalism’s reputation is incremental and cumulative. False balance. Premature reporting of unconfirmed information. Surrender to the politicization of news, so that the public sees not facts and analysis but ideological bias in everything they see and hear.

The Rolling Stone effect will likely be transitory and marginal. Not so for victims of campus sexual assault, unfortunately. That damage will be tragically enduring. The greater damage to journalism’s reputation is incremental and cumulative.

I wish the same effort of [the Rolling Stone investigation] had been expended on the many news organizations who every day refer to the vaccination calamity and manmade climate change as “controversies” or “debates.”

Jacqui Banaszynski, Professor and Knight Chair in Editing, Missouri School of Journalism
I think journalism, as any profession, will have those moments that get a lot of attention and highlight a problem. But those are individual events. I think what’s been damaging is the cascading effect of everything else; when the financial and business model rug got pulled out from under us, and when the digital revolution and chaos stumped us.

But so much is done about the doom and gloom of the industry without anyone saying, “Wait a minute, there are counters to this.” There are tons of good stuff out there, although that doesn’t make the bad stuff less problematic.

All of these multimedia tools we have are remarkable. When I think back to my Pulitzer piece, I can only imagine what that story could have been like with some audio or video. That story lent itself to a much more creative approach that could have been taken with the tools we have today. What I wish is that we had more time to do those things.

Gabriel Kahn, journalism professor, University of Southern California
I think this one ranks pretty low in terms of what’s happened to journalism over the last five years. I would call this a cyclical problem that comes up again and again, either due to poor process in this case, or fabrication as in the Janet Cooke case with The Washington Post or Stephen Glass at The New Republic. There’s nothing in this process that can’t be fixed or changed going forward. The biggest problem for journalism is around the business model and particularly for paying people a living.

In general, your local newspaper has yet to figure out how to live on the Web and how to play by the same rules that Web publications such as BuzzFeed, Gawker, and others, which a lot of these people look down their nose at. And that’s a cultural failing. They haven’t been able to make the right culture within these organizations that allows them to play by the same rules. I can give one egregious example: The Orange County Register decided that they were going to all but remove themselves from the Web by creating a hard paywall and only giving digital access to those who bought the paper product. It made them irrelevant in the digital space, and they paid the price.

Ken Auletta, writer and media critic, The New Yorker
I would say the most damaging thing to journalism is not the [Rolling Stone] story. I think the more damaging thing that’s happened to journalism is economics.

The fear of your magazine or newspaper going out of business … creates pressure throughout the whole industry to shout a little louder, to get more notice, to be first. That pressure induces mistakes. Serious mistakes. Rush is the enemy of considered reporting.

At the same time as your resources are depleted because of the economics of print, you have new competitors who have an ability to get information out much more quickly than you do. They don’t wait a week or a month or a day or until the morning to publish. That creates enormous anxiety in the newspaper and magazine industry to rush to be first. That rush to be first inevitably induces you to make mistakes. So what’s happened is the fear of your magazine or newspaper going out of business or you losing your job because of the economics of print creates pressure throughout the whole industry to shout a little louder, to get more notice, to be first. That pressure induces mistakes. Serious mistakes. Rush is the enemy of considered reporting.

Ken Doctor, media industry analyst
The coming into the news industry—and then failed experiments—of Sam Zell, Aaron Kushner, and John Paton. Each came into the industry as an out-of-the-box, idea-promising outsider. Each raised some hopes—in Tribune Company, at the Orange County Register, through Journal Register and then MediaNews Group. Each has left, or is leaving the news stage, with diminished newsrooms and poorer news products, offering their successors various flavors of turnaround. Each did actually shake some good ideas loose over their tenures, but their legacies led more to disappointment than any advance the industry can take forward.

Editor’s Note: These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review. Tags: