Do You Trust Rolling Stone?

“Do the two of you trust what you read in the magazine now,” Ravi Somaiya of The New York Times asked Columbia Journalism School Deans Steve Coll and Sheila Coronel at a Monday press conference about their Rolling Stone report.

“We’re empiricists,” Coronel replied. “Unless there is evidence to the contrary, we would judge each story on its merits.”

Less than 24 hours before the press conference at Columbia University in New York City, people devoured the 13,000-word report that called the magazine’s November 2014 story about an alleged gang rape a “journalistic failure that was avoidable.”

The report’s authors suggest several areas where stronger policy and clearer staff understanding may have prevented the original story from being published. Yet, the report says Rolling Stone’s senior editors “are unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems.”

Instead of blaming the editorial process, which is largely cited in the report that Rolling Stone commissioned, the magazine’s managing editor says the staff simply has to not make the same mistake again. The magazine’s fact-checking chief is quoted as saying the editorial process isn’t the problem. Instead, the process was bypassed because of the topic – rape.

Rolling Stone Publisher Jann Wenner told The New York Times in an interview that the story’s problems began with its source, who was a girl referred to as “Jackie.” Wenner clarified in the interview that he was not trying to blame the girl, “but obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.”

In other words, Rolling Stone’s leadership believes there is enough blame for these failures to go around, but there’s not enough left for themselves.

As Jack Shafer rightfully points out in Politico Magazine, no news organization is immune from “crimes against journalism.” He cites several well-known cases of pure fabrication and deception, including The Washington Post’s Janet Cooke and USA TODAY’s Jack Kelley.

Admittedly those cases rank higher on any scale of journalism malpractice, but there is another difference. In the cases of Cooke and Kelley, there was some acknowledgement – either through changes in staff or editorial policies – that the organizations learned a lesson.

There will be no changes in staff or editorial policy at Rolling Stone following the release of Columbia Journalism School’s report. Even the author of the now-retracted story will continue to write for the magazine, according to its publisher.

No news organization is immune from “crimes against journalism,” but the measure of an outlet recovering from an offense should be the response of its leadership.

Perhaps there is no need for any of Rolling Stone’s staff to lose their job, but surely there is at least one change that can be made within the magazine’s editorial process based on the report’s findings.

For example, Rolling Stone could implement new and stronger policies in the three areas that “might have changed the final outcome,” according to the report. Those areas are the use of pseudonyms, checking derogatory information and confronting subjects with details.

Another possible change would be a system to ensure the magazine’s fact-checking staff is not timid when confronting editorial leadership with possible problems.

Yet, there are no announced changes within the magazine. The lack of change signals that Rolling Stone’s leadership didn’t learn even one lesson from the 13,000-word report it asked Columbia Journalism School to produce.

Whether people trust Rolling Stone may not be the correct question to ask. Instead, the question may be whether people should trust someone who hasn’t learned any lessons from their mistakes.

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