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Necessity of Strong Journalism Ethics

Virginia RapeWhen Rolling Stone magazine visited the University of Virginia campus with the intentions of finding a story about campus rape among a fraternity that would shock the nation, they likely never expected that they’d end up with a crash course in journalism ethics 101.

Rolling Stone published “A Rape on Campus,” in which a student named Jackie reported that she was gang raped at a Phi Kappa Psi party. The writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, did not ensure the veracity of Jackie’s claims or investigate further. Nonetheless, the story was published, and the fraternity and university suffered a tremendous amount of backlash. 

It was soon revealed that the story was riddled with inaccuracies and fabrications. Simple fact checking by the editors could have easily prevented this dilemma.

As a result of the story, critics are viewing the ethics involved in journalism under a microscope, as the reputation of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity was momentarily tarnished. 

Eleanor Novek, an associate professor of communication, noted that journalists have a professional obligation to report accurate information. “Freedom of the press comes with the responsibility to be accurate and fair. Most professional journalists are guided by the ethical codes of their news organizations, which strive for the utilitarian principle of doing the greatest good for the most people,” she said.

“Freelance and citizen journalists have to rely on their own values,” said Novek. “Reporting the news in a professional manner means taking care to find the truth, not hurrying into publication with a sensational story that is not verified as accurate. Rolling Stone’s errors are especially tragic because in some people’s eyes they have displaced attention from the very real problem of campus rape.”

Novek added that journalists should ask themselves a number of questions before adding information to the story. These questions include: Does the public need to know this information? Will the public be helped by this information? Will anyone be harmed by this information? Will the good outweigh the harm?

The Rolling Stone conundrum is a clear case of a journalist failing to abide by ethical standards. Had the writer’s sources been checked for accuracy and the story edited properly, perhaps the flaws would have been evident and the unfortunate situation avoided.

141205175643 rolling stone uva rape on campus exlarge 169“Professional journalists are supposed to use a number of high quality sources, not just one or two. They should report exhaustively, gathering as much information from as many sources as possible, and then cross-check the information they receive from one source against what they learn from others,” said Novek. “Finally, they should never use anonymous sources. While there are occasionally good reasons to do so, the potential for harm is great.”

Typically, a newsroom will have an official journalism code of ethics to which every story is compared and checked for faithfulness. 

However, these ethics do not apply to freelance writers, so they must operate according to personal ethics.

According to John Morano, a professor of journalism, freelance writers develop their own ethics based on upbringing, the media, their ambitions, laws, religion, their environment, and a plethora of other actors. He added that the development of ethics is a continuous process that should be personally inspected regularly.

Morano noted that the Rolling Stone magazine was too quick to accept the word of the alleged victim, too quick to accuse the fraternity, to lax in vetting information, and too interested in proving a point rather than reporting responsibly. 

The lack of professionalism led to a tremendous outcry by readers. They asserted that college fraternities where hotbeds for sexual assault. 

Already exposed to bad publicity and harsh criticisms, fraternities across the nation were further defamed.  

Joseph Kellett, a freshman biology student brother of Monmouth University’s Phi Kappa Psi chapter, said that unprofessional journalism led to an unfortunate mishap involving the fraternity. “The actions of even one brother has an effect on the fraternity as a whole, so the unprofessional journalism that involved the select brothers to be falsely accused led to a bad reputation for the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity,” said Kellett. “Rape is not something to be taken lightly and to be accused of such actions can severely harm the fraternity and lead to extreme consequences such as the suspension of the chapter or removal from the university.” 

sabrinaIn a world that heavily relies on social media as a means of delivering information, much information that is released through sites such as Twitter is often inaccurate. Thus, official publications must take extra precaution to ensure veracity.

Reporters often tweet information as they themselves receive it, thus allowing no time for fact-checking. However, Morano insists that reputed publications must go through the process of fact-checking. 

“One way to avoid the situation that Rolling Stone is in, is to check your facts. Always be extra careful when relying on a single source, especially if you’ve granted that source anonymity. When an actual name is not attached to information, one can say anything,” said Morano. 

“Information has to be checked, confirmed. It’s important to note that this story was not a `Tweet’. It was put together over a period of time, published in a hard copy version of the magazine. There was ample time for Rolling Stone to do their due diligence,” added Morano.

Hence, it is imperative that the ethics of journalism are thoroughly understood before an article is officially published. Journalists must fully understand the purpose of their writing and must check each bit of information for accuracy. If a fact has been falsified or is not one hundred percent accurate, it must be discarded. It is clear that Rolling Stone had a momentary lapse of ethical judgement; however, this momentary lapse resulted in a whirlwind of controversy in which no winners were involved. As news never takes a break and must always be reported, a code of ethics is of the utmost importance.

“The best tip, a mantra actually, should be `Tell the truth and be fair.’ If a reporter has done that, it’s very difficult to get into trouble. But one has to keep in mind, while it’s important, vital even, to be fair to your sources, it’s equally important to be fair to those who are being commented on. Rolling Stone seems to have experienced a shocking breakdown in what would be considered standard checks and balances in any professional newsroom,” said Morano. 

“They’re not the first to do this, and sadly, they won’t be the last. But that latter point does not mean we should be resigned to the idea that `these things happen,’” continued Morano. “Rather, it should serve as a reminder that editors and reporters need be vigilant and not cut corners whenever they’re engaged in journalistic activity, because `these things’ shouldn’t happen.”

IMAGE TAKEN from dailyprogress.com

IMAGES TAKEN from rollingstone.com

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