3Qs: When the news makes mistakes

On Friday, Rolling Stone admitted there are discrepancies in the account of its primary source for a recent story about alleged rape and that the magazine made mistakes in handling the story. Last year, 60 Minutes admitted to mistakes in reporting and losing confidence in a key source in its story about terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya. The value of multiple sources is a topic Northeastern journalism professor Alan Schroeder has discussed at length with his students in his journalism ethics course this semester. Here, Schroeder weighs in on how backpedaling on high-profile stories can affect news outlets’ credibility and how they can regain it.

How can situations like these affect a news organization’s credibility and brand?

Obviously this is nothing any news organization would want for itself. So the question is how can you contain the damage before it spreads and how quickly and transparently you deal with the problem. If the damage can be contained early enough it can be minimized, but the problem grows when news organizations stand by a story that others are discrediting. Rolling Stone seems to be reacting quickly to the criticisms, which is a good sign, that they weren’t forced into having to do this. I think if the damage can be contained early enough, it can be minimized; problems arise when a news organization stands by its story when others are discrediting it.

How does a news organization regain that credibility once it’s been damaged?

It’s very difficult to regain credibility after you’ve damaged it. I think that CBS and 60 Minutes are still repairing the damage to what was a very solid brand. The way you get it back is by doing good work that is not called into question. What Rolling Stone would need to do is get back to what it does very well, the long-form investigative journalism that put it on the map.

Rolling Stone has an excellent track record over many decades of doing good, investigative, hard-hitting journalism. The magazine has a good basis for readers to trust its reporting, and an important thing here is that Rolling Stone has been pretty transparent in its reaction to questions raised about this story. The magazine isn’t stonewalling; it is acknowledging there were problems here, and that’s a good sign that they are trying to get out ahead of the situation.

How do news organizations know whether they’ve done enough reporting, fact checking, and corroborating the information they uncover—particularly with investigative stories or those focusing on sensitive topics?

Unfortunately, that standard is lower now than it used to be. I’m reminded of the late Ben Bradlee, who was the Washington Post editor during Watergate. He was famous for making Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein go back and get another person to corroborate the information they were churning up because you’re talking about bringing down the president of the United States.

That used to be more the tradition than it is now. Today, the news moves very fast and there’s a real pressure to just get the news out as it’s happening. You see this on Twitter when news is being reporting in real time. It also means mistakes are more likely to be made. It’s a piece of the journalism tradition that I think we’ve lost somewhat, that you need multiple sources to confirm facts, particularly the controversial facts. Even thinking back on the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, when they misidentified the suspect on social media. It’s too bad that we’ve shifted away from those old values in our zeal to get the news out quickly.