R.B. Brenner: As ‘Rolling Stone’ debacle shows, journalism schools’ mission has never been more important

NOTE: This commentary first appeared April 9, 2015 in The Dallas Morning News. It is republished here with permission.

My student’s email arrived with an eye-catching subject line: lucky 7.

It was shorthand for the seventh revision of a story she had written in an advanced journalism course. The class, at the University of Texas at Austin, is designed to immerse students in realities of a professional newsroom. One of the most essential realities is this: A reporter’s work benefits from careful editing, obsessive fact checking and vigilance against blind spots or knowledge gaps.

I signed off on “lucky 7,” but the student’s work went through two more editors before we considered it ready for Reporting Texas, a digital publishing site of UT-Austin’s School of Journalism.

Last week, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism released its version of a forensics report dissecting the lapses that led Rolling Stone magazine to retract an investigative article about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia. The report reminded me, once again, of the balance that those of us who lead journalism schools must strike.

We want to be leaders in the industry’s digital reinvention. At UT-Austin, the journalism curriculum now includes courses in mobile news app design, mobile programming, data visualization and social media. We teach students fresh ways to write for online audiences and how to think like media entrepreneurs.

But in the embrace of Twitter posts and Vine videos, teaching traditional skills and eternal values has to remain a priority. Atop the list are a reporter’s devotion to verification and an approach to newsgathering that guards against preconception –both underscored in the Columbia report.

“The particulars of Rolling Stone’s failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail,” wrote the report’s three authors, including Steve Coll, the Columbia journalism school dean.

When I jumped from college to a professional newsroom in the mid-1980s, the paper that hired me wasn’t fat with profits. Yet there seemed to be no shortage of wiser, older peers who had time to serve as mentors. I’d go to them whenever a thorny issue arose, such as whether an anonymous source might be pushing me down a perilous path.

A sizeable number of recent graduates are not as tied to journalistic institutions, by choice or circumstance. They climb a jungle gym of opportunities. The life of a journalistic free agent can be liberating, but finding help to decode the operating manual, if one exists, might not be so easy.

Journalism schools can help. A starting point is to realize that all students benefit from being grounded in certain fundamentals of reporting, fact checking and self-editing, whether their ambitions are to work for Facebook or The New York Times. In conversations with student reporters, I begin with these questions: Have you done everything possible to gather verifiable information? Does your reporting rely on primary sources? Did you go there and see it for yourself? What are the consequences to the act of publishing the information?

The first course our undergraduates take is “Fundamentals in Journalism.” Students explore ways to approach a subject in an intellectually curious, even-handed way. They learn that in the hyper-competitive business of 24/7 news, it’s important to be first and essential to be accurate.

These lessons are bolstered and deepened with stand-alone courses in journalism ethics and media law. The initial in-depth reporting class hammers the basics of verification, attribution and sourcing. We stress the importance of professional internships all the time.

The goal, etched in our mission statement, is to “educate ethical, socially responsible, well-rounded and fair-minded” journalists.

High-minded? Yes. Enough to guarantee that lapses like those detailed in the Columbia report won’t happen again? No.

Necessary? Now more than ever, I’d argue.


About the Author

R.B. Brenner is the director of the School of Journalism at The University of Texas at Austin, Moody College of Communication. He is also an Ex-Officio member of the Headliners Foundation of Texas Board of Governors. Brenner was most recently deputy director of Stanford’s journalism program. He was a visiting lecturer at the UT School of Journalism in the spring of 2009. That year, the Moody College presented him with the DeWitt Carter Reddick Award, which recognizes excellence in the field of communication. At The Washington Post, Brenner held several jobs, including Maryland editor, metropolitan editor, Sunday editor and deputy universal news editor. He was one of the primary editors of the newspaper’s coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings, awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2008.

R.B Brenner