Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A matter of integrity

It was a story about a most horrific crime - a gang rape of a female college student by members of a fraternity on the campus of the University of Virginia. It sparked outrage and protest in Charlottesville and other campuses around the country. A call for major changes was made for Greek life in just about every college and university.

The article that appeared in Rolling Stone
The problem was that none of it happened - or at least happened as the accuser laid out the facts. That's what the Rolling Stone magazine had to admit this week - that the case built against the brothers of Phi Kappa Psi by the reporter who filed the story was replete with investigative failures, some as basic as no social event taking place the night of the alleged attack and that the student identified as leading the assault worked at the school's aquatic center - when none of the fraternity's members held such a position.

The prestigious Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism issued a scathing report about the story, the Poynter Institute called it the Error of the Year in Journalism, and the fraternity is planning on filing suit against the magazine.

Phi Kappa Psi's house at the University of Virginia
The sad part of this discussion is that journalistic scandals are hardly a solitary event. Whether it was Jayson Blair of the New York Times who plagiarized articles from other newspapers when writing about with the Beltway Sniper case in 2002 or the recent claims by NBC's Brian Williams about his taking fire in Iraq or seeing bodies in the floodwaters post Hurricane Katrina, there are times when journalists will - and do - stretch the truth to boost ratings or add more impact to a story.

As public information officers, we need to understand that incidents such as these are very few and far between, which is what makes their revelation such a shock to the journalism community. The vast majority of journalists take their professional duties very seriously, and they understand that misreporting a situation - such as the incident that happened in Rolling Stone - can have a terrible effect on victims who may now fear that their accusations may not be taken seriously.

The Society of Professional Journalists is clear in its code of ethics that as custodians of one of the most precious First Amendment Rights - freedom of the press - journalists have an ethical duty to:
  • Seek the truth and report it;
  • Minimize harm;
  • Act independently; and.
  • Be accountable and transparent.
While we can't do these things for the journalists, we can take the proactive steps of being as open and forthright as possible in our dealings with them. Maximum allowable disclosure in the minimum amount of time. With a reputation of being someone who is readily available to reporters - and responsive to their requests - there is one less reason that a reporter would have to struggle to fill in the blanks.

Being open with and responsive to reporters is a critical part of our jobs
Another important advantage that we have in plying our vocation in 2015 is that it is easier than ever to create a record of what we communicate to reporters. Obviously, radio and television reporters are electronically documenting your responses to their questions, and most TV reporters are bringing at least rudimentary video equipment with them to interviews to document and produce a short video for their websites. And, it takes only a few minutes to dash off an e-mail to the reporter restating your key messages to ensure that the information you have provided is relayed accurately.

While this is absolutely no guarantee that the reporter will get every single detail right, it does provide a trail of evidence that unequivocally relates what your message is and proves that you have done your part to help get the report as accurate as possible. 

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

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