business of news

Should there have been firings at Rolling Stone?

April 6, 2015

With the news that Rolling Stone has chosen not to punish any of its employees in the wake of the Columbia report, we asked Jill Geisler to weigh in on that decision.

Liz Spayd: The report describes a long list of journalistic failures. Are these firing offenses?

Jill Geisler: They are. The review minced no words about the depth of the transgressions:

“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 level of problematic decision-making in this case is extremely high. The bell ringing throughout the review is that people at all levels kept doing workarounds, well intentioned or not, that gave them comfort in publication. Investigative journalism is all about discomfort. Editors need to constantly push back, to “prosecute” the veracity of a source, an assumption, or an emerging narrative so that the story is as bulletproof as possible. That process can result in tension between reporters and editors — and that’s healthy. That tension seemed absent here. Simply put, this was bad journalism in pursuit of a higher purpose: exposing rape culture. In the end, it caused harm all around.

Liz: What troubles you the most about the leadership failures in this story?

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Jill: Jann Wenner is quoted in The New York Times as saying the managing editor, story editor and reporter would keep their jobs. The leadership perspective seems to be that they’re chastened by the report, and fault themselves mostly for being too trusting. That puts the onus on the subject of the story more than on the magazine’s systemic failures. I’m shaking my head over this passage in the report:

“Yet Rolling Stone’s senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems. ‘It’s not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don’t think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things,’ Dana said. ‘We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.’”

At a time when humility should guide a leader’s comments, that quote carries the aroma of arrogance.

That’s dangerous. An organization that has committed this kind of malpractice can’t simply dust itself off and say, “We’ve got this. Trust us.” When journalism is practiced well, a rigorous editing process is the best defense against any one individual’s error, from a brain lapse to outright bias. This wasn’t about inexperience or lack of resources. Experienced people along the line persuaded themselves that they were right; that means there’s a flaw in both their thinking and their process.

Liz: How can Rolling Stone recover from this?

Jill: Inviting the investigation of its seriously flawed report was a good first step. Should there have been firings? There definitely could have been — and still could be — given the level of unprofessionalism. Firings send a message that certain behavior is unacceptable. I don’t advocate them for public relations purposes, but rather to rebuild a team and restore trust. Even if Jann Wenner believes these are good editors who blew it on just one big story, there’s still more to be done to rebuild trust. I’d like to see first-person published accounts from Wenner, the story editor, the managing editor, and the reporter on what each of them learned from this and what each will truly do differently in the future. I’d also like to see them do two town hall meetings, one at Columbia and another UVA, to respond candidly to questions from students and the community. That kind of dialogue, in the face of this debacle, would show true leadership. It could contribute to the practice of journalism and the conversation about campus rape; it might even help restore Rolling Stone’s credibility.

Jill Geisler coaches managers worldwide. She holds the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago. She’s the author of the book, Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know, and the “Q&A: Leadership and Integrity in the Digital Age” podcasts on iTunes U.