Investigative journalism is alive and well at newspapers

By: Brad Buchanan

Outside of freshman journalism classes, we would be hard pressed to find a better example of reporting pathologies than Rolling Stone’s discredited story on the University of Virginia rape case. The story began to unravel soon after it was published in November of last year, with the Washington Post publishing an extensive article on Dec. 5, 2014, poking holes in the story.

Rolling Stone’s initial reporting was shoddy, incomplete and biased. As stated in a report from the Columbia School of Journalism: “Rolling Stone’s repudiation of the main narrative in ‘A Rape on Campus’ is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking.” Hmm, sounds like they failed virtually all fundamental aspects of Journalism 101. The primary lesson from the Columbia post-mortem was: If you can’t prove it, don’t print it.

Back when I was in school, Rolling Stone was one of the “cool” magazines. There were articles on social issues, as well as information on the new slide guitarist for the Allman Brothers. Most dorms had at least one copy, and it was probably read eight to 10 times, on average, by various students. The UVA rape story damaged the magazine’s credibility, but the response by Rolling Stone’s publisher, Jann Wenner, may have put it in the same class with The National Enquirer and World Weekly News.

Recently, Wenner stated that there would be no disciplinary action taken because of the poor reporting. Worse yet, instead of taking full responsibility for the fallacious story, he blamed the “victim,” rather than the journalists. When speaking of “Jackie,” the pseudonym for the story’s main source, Wenner said she was “a really expert fabulous storyteller.” Stating that he did not want to blame “Jackie,” Wenner went on to say, “there is something here that is untruthful.” Yes, and that is precisely what good journalists are trained to winnow out. Judging by this “no-mea-culpa,” nothing is going to change at Rolling Stone to help prevent this kind of travesty in the future. It used to be hip. Now it just appears to be hype.

There is a huge silver lining to this story, though. One of the authors of the Columbia School of Journalism’s in-depth examination of the UVA rape story was Shelia Coronel, the academic dean at the institution. She has stated that this is the “golden age of investigative journalism,” and (unlike Rolling Stone) the facts support her assessment. Woodward and Bernstein may be names from the distant past, but their legacy in breaking the Watergate scandal endures. What was the primary source for debunking the UVA rape story? The Washington Post, one publication fact checking another, newspapers mucking out the stables of their own industry.

A recent book by Penny Muse Abernathy, “Saving Community Journalism,” notes the importance of newspapers in setting the agenda for public policy. As Abernathy puts it, “…newspapers - more than any other traditional medium - essentially determine the ‘hot button’ issues that are debated and voted on in communities large and small.” You don’t have to search long or hard to see her point. In today’s headlines, nine out of 10 teachers indicted in the Atlanta school system’s test cheating scandal were sentenced, with three receiving a seven-year term in jail. Where did this investigation start? At the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2003. It took 12 years, but their efforts have come to fruition.

This is another aspect of investigative journalism that must be acknowledged - it takes time. We live in a “three click” world. Many people assume that if you can’t find it on Google in three clicks, it must not exist. But investigative journalism is not just a few clicks away. Good reporting, doing all the things that Rolling Stone failed to do in their UVA fantasy, is a grueling, tedious, time-consuming process. How does this square with down-sizing newsrooms, and publications going out of business? What happens when big corporations insist that all reporting be predicated on a slanted narrative? Where does investigative journalism fit in a news world that revolves around fast ROI?

There are certainly issues that must be overcome. But in this country we have a long and proud tradition of journalists who are willing to buck the trends (and sometimes their bosses) to get the story right. From Upton Sinclair’s expose on the Beef Trust in 1908, and George Seldes’ prophetic investigation on the dangers of cigarette smoking in 1941, to today’s headline on the sentencing of cheating teachers in Atlanta, newspapers are one of the major catalysts for exposing injustice, vice, corruption and dishonesty in our society. We need to ensure the next generation is equipped to carry on this tradition of investigative journalism, which is so essential to the proper functioning of democracy.