Should Jann Wenner have canned Rolling Stone staffers?

The question on the lips of several reporters during Columbia Journalism School's presser today: Should heads have rolled at Rolling Stone for the oversights that produced "A Rape on Campus?"

The authors of the report deferred to the magazine, emphasizing their role in highlighting "systemic and institutional problems" rather than prescribing specific fixes. "We leave it up to Rolling Stone to decide how best to deal with these problems,” said Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs at the school.

While Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner and managing editor Will Dana told The New York Times they have fixed some newsroom practices, Wenner has said staffers at Rolling Stone will not be disciplined for the flawed story.

The decision was a striking one when viewed in the context of the long and unforgiving review. The Washington Post's Erik Wemple appeared incredulous and his colleague Chris Cillizza worried about the lack of reprisal's effect on journalism. "No one at Rolling Stone magazine is going to be fired: How can that be?" read a subhead for a CNN story.

Other newsroom leaders contacted by Poynter were also surprised. Peter Bhatia, an Arizona State University professor and former executive editor at The Oregonian, expressed disbelief.

"In my case, as someone who ran newsrooms and news organizations for a long, long time, I’m astounded that no one is losing their job as a result of this," Bhatia said.

The lack of attention to the basics of journalism, including verification of key facts and conducting interviews with crucial witnesses, is enough to warrant dismissal, Bhatia said. He singled out the story editor and the chief fact-checker as particularly culpable, but he also said disciplinary measures could extend to the managing editor and reporter as well.

"The gravity of the offenses, as Columbia illustrates and has been apparent for some time, would make it impossible for the people responsible for that travesty to continue in the positions that they’re in,” Bhatia said.

The issue of firings at Rolling Stone is complicated somewhat by the fact that Wenner, who has the authority to clean house at the magazine, also bears some responsibility for the publication of the article, said Butch Ward, a senior faculty member at The Poynter Institute and former managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Wenner, who read a draft of the story before it went to press, did nothing to stop it.

Ward cautions that the process of mending Rolling Stone's credibility is more nuanced than simple questions about firing the responsible staffers. Instead, staffers should make decisions going forward about how to prevent a similar fiasco from reoccurring.

"The more important question is, what will change at Rolling Stone as a result of this episode?" Ward asked. "How will this organization change to stop something like this from ever happening again?”

Jill Geisler, a newsroom leadership expert and former faculty member at Poynter, wrote about the possibility of firings for Columbia Journalism Review. In an interview with Poynter, Geisler said whether or not employees should be dismissed rests on more than one botched story. Rather, leaders with firing authority should examine their entire body of work and emphasize rebuilding "a news organization in the future that has credibility." And editors should never cut staff just to "satisfy a few angry questioners at a news conference.”

"It’s too easy to say, 'off with their heads,'" Geisler said. "What you want to do is say, what would be the reasons why these journalists could continue credibly in their roles?”

Geisler also mentioned alternatives to firing that could allow the newsroom to establish its credibility. The employees could, for example, write publicly about ways they will change their own reporting and editing processes to lend transparency to the newsroom's practice. And they could also hold town hall meetings at Columbia University and the University of Virginia to explain how they intend to learn from the experience. Both steps would signal that the magazine takes the review seriously and intends to heed its lessons.

The mistakes in the article are now "on their permanent record," Geisler said. "Only they can decide if they will define them. And they’ve got to do more than they’ve currently done to keep that from being the case.”

David Boardman, dean of Temple University's school of media and communication and former executive editor of the Seattle Times, reserved judgment over whether he would fire staffers, citing the need for further information about the magazine's internal operations.

However, he did recommend several intermediate routes that could be taken, such as mandatory remedial training or suspensions without pay. Ultimately, he says, the impulse to rectify the decision through dismissals has to be tempered with concern for the livelihood of the employees.

"Just as with the story, you’re talking about human beings and their lives," Boardman said. "And the actions in the aftermath of something like this deserves the same amount of care and thoughtfulness as the story did.”

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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