When studying for my media law exam on libel, I poured over what defined negligence compared to actual malice. I could not keep the two straight, until I finally realized, they were extremely similar and both bad journalism practices. So here’s a mini media law lesson:
The legal definition of actual malice means knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. While North Carolina doesn’t have a legal definition of negligence, it is essentially failure to exercise ordinary or reasonable care.
Negligence is likely to be found when there is a discrepancy between what the reporter says the source told them and what the source says they told the reporter. Also if the reporter makes little to no effort to contact the subject and if the story is based only on one source and the information isn’t verified.
Reckless disregard is knowledge of falsity. The journalist had serious doubts about the truth of the story, the accusations were so improbable no reasonable person would have published it and the journalists purposefully avoided the truth by ignoring obvious sources.
With that in mind, think back to the Rolling Stone ‘A Rape on Campus’ story.
CNN posted a story arguing that Rolling Stone still hasn’t learned its lesson. Before the incident the highly credible source made a number of errors in standard journalistic practices. Ones that would make any JOMC 153 News Writing professor cringe.
Rolling Stone posted a note from the editor one day earlier saying they asked the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to look into the story, for no payment, and in return would publish their entire report. The editor admits it was a failure of journalism, and now 5 months later Rolling Stones is officially retracting the original story, ‘A Rape On Campus’.
Investigators looked into the nitty details of the failures in reporting and editing. According to the report the writer never verified the alleged attacker and never confronted him about the allegations to hear his side of the story. She never spoke to 3 of the girl’s friends who talked to her after the attack or gave the fraternity a chance to respond.
The author of the CNN article criticizes that fact that no Rolling Stones staff was fired. The senior editors of the Rolling Stones said they do not believe the error requires a change in their editorial system and saw the story as an earnest but misguided attempt to believe a sexual assault victim. Probably not the best PR statement to make.
I think there are a lot of good lessons from the Rolling Stones article. We all want to believe the victim. If someone says they were raped who are we to say ” no you’re lying.” But there are two sides to every story and as a journalist its your job to cover both sides to the best of your ability, so to avoid a libel case.
And yes, a lot of negligence and reckless disregard for the truth occurred. The UVA fraternity does plan to sue Rolling Stones for the reckless reporting that harmed their reputation. It’s text book mistakes of not contacting the subject, not verifying the facts and ignoring obvious sources. Mistakes that should not be made on any level much less as high as the Rolling Stones.
The story has hurt their credibility as a respectable news source. People will believe any story expecting it to already be fact checked. As a reader we shouldn’t have to verify what we read and question its accuracy, especially from a credible news source.
People fail and make mistakes, even at the Rolling Stones. Maybe its the fast paced digital era assisting in these major oversights in traditional journalism? Either way journalists are held to a high standard and should follow 101 policies such as fact checking and talking to more than one source, to produce the least biased story possible.