A journalistic lesson that needs to be learned again


by Suzanne Pollak

Senior Writer

Rolling Stone, a magazine I subscribed to many years ago for the detailed portraits they painted of the musicians I sang along with, has angered me in so many ways. In just one article, it has set back so many of the things that I consider important.

Let’s start with journalism. How can I blame anyone right now for dissing the press? Why should anyone want to be speak with me or any reporter? I pride myself in making sure my articles are factually correct. I would not let one of my sources dictate who I can and cannot speak with.


Don’t get me wrong. It’s tempting to run with a great quote, an overheard comment that I know will go viral. Being the first to get a story is a big deal in journalism. And the competition is everywhere. Washington Jewish Week competes with the Jewish press, the local media and the national media. But I am realistic. I know we have but four reporters. That might excuse me from getting a story first, but it is no excuse for going with facts I have not checked myself.

I can almost see the glee on the editor’s face at Rolling Stone when first reading through Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s article about The University of Virginia. It was full of everything that would sell subscriptions – rape, college life, fraternities. You name it.

But, as other newspapers quickly realized, there were enough red flags to hold the article for the next edition so there was enough time to check out the facts. Getting beaten can’t ever be as bad as ruining the reputations of people and universities.

Immediately following the publication of the article came the flood of other media outlets jumping on the stor, believing that as long as they said “according to Rolling Stone,” they didn’t do anything wrong.

Ask the five men in New York who were convicted of brutally beating and raping a women jogging in Central Park how they feel about this. That story also went viral, but turns out they weren’t guilty despite what just about every newspaper and television broadcast stated.

Reporters and their editors need to step back and accept that they are going to be beaten. It’s just not okay to rush out an article without checking, double checking, facts. People’s reputations can be ruined and never fully restored by an irresponsible decision to go with a story not fully checked out.

Sure, reporters are human. They make mistakes, but there’s a huge difference in getting a quote wrong and writing a story so that it fits what the reporter would like it to say.

In this case, all reporters aren’t the only ones harmed. The Rolling Stone article damaged women who have been assaulted, fraternities, young men, The University of Virginia and life on all college campuses.

An assaulted woman will be even more reluctant to tell her story. A parent will be even more worried to send their child off to college. And readers will be less likely to believe what they read.

I know that feeling that I have a great story. I know the urge to just go with something to satisfy an editor. But I also now understand how much damage one article can do. I pledge to keep that in mind every time I start typing.

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