Washington Times columnist and journalism professor Christopher Harper believes the longstanding concepts of objectivity, fairness and balance have become outdated – particularly in light of recent media scandals after stories are revealed to be fabricated or inaccurate. He believes new tenets of quality journalism are needed.
“Objectivity, fairness and balance are things that mean different things to different people,” Harper said. “I think we can agree on accuracy. I think we can agree on transparency.”
Sabrina Erdely’s “A Rape on Campus,” published by Rolling Stone in November, told the story of an anonymous female college student who described being brutally gang raped at a University of Virginia frat party. Though the described trauma suffered by the student, dubbed “Jackie,” – a shortened form of her true name – is not specifically disproved, the 9,000-word story was largely discredited; first by the revelation of several inconsistencies by the Washington Post and then through the Columbia School of Journalism’s extensive report about the Rolling Stone’s “failure of journalism,” as Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana put it himself in a note to readers.
Since then, Temple’s Department of Journalism has addressed the implications of its retraction and all the events proceeding. From editing to ethics courses, many professors have directly incorporated the Rolling Stone case into their curricula.
Erdely, who previously taught magazine article writing at Temple as an adjunct, could not be reached for comment.
Harper, who has taught both journalism ethics and law, is on sabbatical this semester, but has addressed the Rolling Stone situation and several similar scandals – like Brian Williams’ fabricated war-reporting story – in his Washington Times column. In his most recent columns, which addressed “A Rape on Campus,” Harper condemned situations where “the facts didn’t stand in the way of a good story,” as he wrote on April 8.
A problematic trend in recent journalistic scandals, he said, is confirmation bias. Erdely displayed this action – seeking a situation that supports an existing belief or bias that a person has – in writing the UVA rape story, according to the Columbia report and Harper’s column.
“I think that term [of confirmation bias], which is generally used in psychology, needs to be used in journalism,” Harper said in an interview with The Temple News.
Some of his colleagues at Temple echoed his sentiments, including Karen Naylor, a working journalist and adjunct professor who teaches Editing the News. She said she asked her students to read the Columbia report in order to discuss what “missteps Rolling Stone had taken.”
“I believe they had a story idea, and they were going to make sure the reporting fit that idea,” Naylor said, referring to Erdely and editors at Rolling Stone.
She added that she thinks, based on the Columbia report, there were at least five or six “moments of pause” that Rolling Stone recognized, but chose not to act upon in terms of proper verification and testing of accuracy.
“There’s an old adage in journalism that if your mother tells you she loves you, you better check it out,” Naylor said. “An editor’s job is essentially to ask the reporter, ‘Did you check that out?’”
Larry Hanover, a professor who teaches Journalism Research, said he called the story a “ticking time bomb” due to the lack of fact verification at the time of its publication.
“I mean, the main rule is verify, verify, verify,” Hanover said. “They had people to contact, people who were supposedly there right after the time of the attack. They didn’t contact them, they didn’t talk to the fraternity. You can be nice to the person you’re interviewing, but you have to be professional. You can say, ‘In order to go forward with this, I need to check on this.’”
The professors also noted the retraction’s particularly damaging nature for victims of abuse. Naylor said she feels Rolling Stone’s first note to readers, which “sort of blamed the woman” who was the main subject, “causes all kinds of social problems.” The statement, she said, “lacks as much depth as their editing process did – sort of very superficial, very cursory. They did very cursory editing, and very cursory apologizing.”
Harper wrote in his column about how to move forward from the event. On April 8, he wrote that “the Rolling Stone debacle provides an opportunity to recreate a connection between the press and public,” and reestablish quality of journalism – something he said has been lacking in recent years.
Journalists must “step out of their private lives to provide people with what their biases are,” he said to The Temple News, explaining how that connection can be regained. His most recent column, called “It’s time for journalists to come clean,” was his personal declaration of transparency.
He described his own religious and political beliefs, campaign donations and compensation for speaking engagements. This, he wrote, is a good first step for journalists to “regain credibility with the public.”
Erin Edinger-Turoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @erinJustineET.