The online story (“A rape on campus”) ultimately attracted more than 2.7 million views, more than any other feature not about a celebrity that the magazine had ever published.
– Coronel, S., Coll, S., & Kravitz, D., Rolling Stone’s investigation: “A failure that was avoidable.”
Journalists used to say that if your mother tells you it’s a nice day, you should go outside and check for yourself. Then have two other persons go out separately and report back what kind of day they think it is. If all four agree, you may report that it’s a nice day.
Today, all it takes for a news reporter to write that it’s a nice day is for the sales and advertising department to say it is a nice day.
The Columbia Journalism Review report on what went wrong in the reporting of Jackie’s alleged rape at a UVA fraternity house covers the mistakes made by the reporters and managers at Rolling Stone Magazine. What is obviously missing from the report is the role of the advertising and sales department in its effort to attract readers to the magazine’s website.
Before the intensification of media convergence–the melding together of different systems of distribution (print, TV, radio) –there was a symbolic wall between the editorial side of a newspaper or magazine and the sales and advertising side. Since the 1970s that wall has been steadily crumbling as media properties sought greater and greater profits. Today, as Timothy Cook writes in his book, Governing with the News, profit-oriented managers run news organizations. It is now common at many news organizations for sales and advertising personnel to join the editorial staff in discussions of what issues, events, and people to cover in the news.
In a section attached to the Rolling Stone review article, “How Columbia Journalism School conducted this investigation,” the authors note that they interviewed several members on the editorial side of Rolling Stone. Not one person on the sales and advertising side is mentioned. Yet, the pressure on media companies like Rolling Stone to increase profits has intensified in the last few decades.
The fact is that today the balance between news as a public service and news as a business has shifted. As a result, the news business is more about business than it is about news. The news business depends on sensationalism, crime, and entertainment for increased profits. Those profits depend on an audience that can be sold to advertisers.
What is unfortunate is that the UVA rape story may have hurt victims of rape. It certainly hurt the members of the fraternity who were accused of rape. It also hurt the community. And the fact is Rolling Stone was also hurt. But at least the magazine got 2.7 million views, a readership it can sell to advertisers for a tidy profit.
For the business side of Rolling Stone, it’s a nice day.
For more information on how the news has changed in recent years:
Allan, S. (1999). News culture. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Cook, T. E. (1998)(2nd Ed.). Governing with the news: The news media as a political institution. Chicago: University of Chicago.
Mnookin, S. (2004). Hard news: The scandals at the New York Times and the future of American media. New York: Random House.
Schlesinger, P. & Tumber, H. (1994). Reporting crime: The media politics of criminal justice.