Three days ago Rolling Stone magazine retracted a story it had published last Fall about a gang rape that allegedly took place on the University of Virginia campus. Its mea culpa was a shocking admission of extreme journalistic negligence on the part of the respected publication. As a review by Columbia University’s School of Journalism showed and as highlighted in the published retraction, it failed to properly vet the story. Surprising as it may seem, facts weren’t checked and with that remarkable lapse, a story was printed that apparently was largely if not entirely incorrect. A massive blow to its reputation, the publication is now working feverishly to repair the damage.
With the growth of brand journalism and content marketing where organizations have become not only purveyors of goods and services but publishers as well, Rolling Stone’s story and its ensuing credibility crisis is a cautionary tale.
Any time information is published, whether by an individual blogger or an organization, the credibility and ultimately reputation of its author is on the line. An audience follows a blog or frequents a site because it’s a trusted resource and expects the information provided, whether it’s tips on how to clean a pool, suggestions on throwing a toddler birthday party or strategies for improving customer experience to be truthful and accurate. The quality of the content is everything; it’s the foundation upon which this vital relationship between audience and publisher is built. Without it, an engaging style, sharp visuals and compelling topics are worthless.
While the Rolling Stone story is an extreme example involving a massive falsehood, publishing any misinformation can have a deleterious impact, whether it’s misstating a statistic, linking to a site with incorrect information, overstating a product benefit or exaggerating an experience. Those inaccuracies undermine credibility and, subsequently that key relationship.
One of the first lessons I ever learned in media relations was to never overstate a story regardless of the situation. Steering clear of sensational words that inherently overpromise was essential. If you say it’s revolutionary it sure as heck better be revolutionary, in the truest sense of the word. News releases were reviewed as carefully for the veracity of the information being conveyed as they were for punctuation. Communicating inaccurate information no matter how slight would undermine that important connection with both our immediate audience, reporters and the eventual one, our customers. It’s a lesson that extends beyond the boundaries of traditional media and applies just as vigorously to social media.
For many bloggers and organizations there is a pressure to publish, an editorial schedule that must be followed. It’s critical however, regardless of the burden to print, to make sure the information being communicated is correct. Review statistics and make sure you’ve captured their true meaning, assess your use of language and determine whether it accurately captures the essence of the experience, issue or product; and make sure the broad perspective of your content is correct, especially if it’s built on information from other sources.
As it goes with trust, once it’s lost it’s so hard to regain it. Respect your audience and invest the extra effort required to make sure – every time you publish – the information being communicated is completely, one hundred per cent accurate.
I’m sure Rolling Stone wishes it had done just that.
By Alison Cook