Look no further than the film “Spotlight” and the debate over a Rolling Stone magazine article about Mexican drug lord El Chapo to come away with two starkly different impressions of journalism.
“Spotlight” is Hollywood’s take on The Boston Globe investigation documenting rampant sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, for which it won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
The film plays up real-life Globe decisions to hold the story until it could prove people in power knew of the abuse and enabled it. The stories reverberated around the world and led to dramatic changes to protect children. To those of us working in newsrooms every day, this movie is an inspiring reminder of the public good we do when we are at our best.
Then there’s Rolling Stone’s decision to publish a narrative by actor Sean Penn recounting his secret meeting with the drug lord after he escaped from prison. The magazine disclosed prominently that “an understanding was brokered” that Rolling Stone would get approval from El Chapo – his real name is Joaquín Guzmán Loera – before publication. It also said that El Chapo did not ask for any changes. Reading it, I can’t imagine why he would – other than to request prose that’s less self-indulgent and a color other than purple.
OK, that sounds snarky. But read a few graphs and you’ll see it’s restrained.
Penn isn’t a journalist; he’s an actor and an activist. He’s in the entertainment business and, to a certain extent, so is Rolling Stone. Whatever their purpose might have been – the excitement of sitting face-to-face with a powerful and wanted man, the adrenaline of a scoop – I imagine this story was good for business.
But the subsequent debate over whether this is journalism? And whether the agreement violated journalism ethics? I’m more alarmed by parts of the debate than the Rolling Stone decision. In today’s world, where anyone can be a publisher and interpretations of the craft are endless and broad, journalists need to be frightfully aware that our credibility with readers is earned, and fragile, and can be damaged in an instant.
In today’s world, where anyone can be a publisher and interpretations of the craft are endless and broad, journalists need to be frightfully aware that our credibility with readers is earned, and fragile, and can be damaged in an instant.
One of the many newsroom moments that rang true in “Spotlight” was the scene in which Liev Schreiber – in real life editor Marty Baron – spurned Cardinal Bernard Law’s suggestion that The Boston Globe and Catholic Church have a friendly relationship.
A newspaper, Baron’s character said, functions best when it works alone.
That simple phrase is at the core of journalistic credibility. We stand alone so our coverage is not influenced by power or friendships or money. The decision to flout that value, to essentially partner with a known drug dealer and killer rather than stay independent, has become a defining moment for Rolling Stone’s reputation.
I think of other stories in the news and what it would look like to report and write them only with approval from the subjects involved:
▪ How would we write a profile of Ammon Bundy, the rancher leading an armed protest of federal land ownership at a wildlife refuge in Oregon? Think about the coverage you’ve read and what it might have looked like had reporters agreed to give Bundy control.
▪ What about the controversy in 2015 at Sacramento City Hall, where Mayor Kevin Johnson and Councilman Allen Warren both were accused of sexual harassment? (City officials said Johnson was cleared in two investigations; the public awaits more detail regarding Warren.) I imagine if they had control over the coverage, we would not have had any coverage.
▪ How about an early exclusive interview with former California Sen. Leland Yee, who was arrested in a sweeping federal investigation into a Bay Area organized crime ring? Yee eventually pleaded guilty to one felony count of racketeering. What kind of coverage would he have approved?
Source approval is different from fact-checking, which we do routinely, whether to ensure we explained something correctly or quoted a source correctly. The Bee’s ethics policy allows for that, with this caveat: “As a general rule, we do not read entire stories aloud to sources before publication, or share complete text for them to read in advance.”
Nor do we automatically trust information given to us. A law enforcement officer recently told me The Bee just needs to trust the information his agency provides. The context was an investigation we’ve done into a death in this community. I’m sure he was sincere, but our role is to report and verify.
That value of independence transcends story size. Take away the dramatic part that made up much of the Penn story – secret communication to set up a clandestine meeting, the very fact he met with El Chapo while the man was being hunted by authorities – and you end up with a very long story without much information.
As it turns out, Penn never got the face-to-face interview he wanted, or all of his questions answered. He met El Chapo to arrange the interview, but ended up submitting questions for the man to answer on video. So we know El Chapo loves his mother and that he does not consider himself a violent man. But we don’t know what makes him tick or how he behaves once Hollywood leaves.
Perhaps the sexy part will make for a movie, with the details imagined. And Penn can stick with his day job.