Recently, the (London) Daily Mail was ordered by a British judge to issue a formal apology to J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame. According to the (London) Guardian, this all stems from a suit filed by Rowling in 2013 in which she alleged the Daily Mail knowingly published a article in which Rowling’s tale as a single mother was characterized as a “sob story” and in which members of her own church were reported to have been left upset and confused, an allegation which was later acknowledged by the publisher as “completely false and indefensible.”
And the media wonders why there is such little regard for reporters.
The very first rule of journalism, at least the way I learned it, was two words: fact check. Unfortunately, today’s media seems to be more concerned with sensationalism and creating a buzz to sell copies, create clicks, or attract viewers than it is actually reporting an accurate story. Reporters, looking to make a name for themselves, seem hellbent on landing that juicy story and, when they can’t do it, many appear to figure that inference in journalism is acceptable. While the ability to “read between the lines” is an essential tool for any budding reporter, something just as essential is missing: sound judgment.
Part of this, in reality, stems from an elitist attitude which has infected and metastasized within the journalism industry. Rather than focus on finding individuals who are willing to dig, ask questions, and focus on the real story, editors and publishers have blurred the lines between reporting and opining. While good writing begets a good story, firm journalistic principles and ethics beget good reporting, which can beget a good story. Opining within a piece of reporting, however, begets lazy or, worse, bad journalism, every time. Any journalist worth their degree can write a story, it takes work to hunt down and, moreover, verify the facts which transform a story into reporting.
What is incomprehensible is the “why” of this matter. Why on earth would the Daily Mail go after Rowling, a woman whose character has been above reproach from her early days writing Harry Potter? Could it be someone smelled a potential honey of a story after her ill-advised attempt to write a crime drama under a pseudonym, or perhaps the controversy caused by her first release following Deathly Hallows was the erotic novel Casual Vacancy? The fact is, it doesn’t matter what the motive was; what matters is the Daily Mail got caught with its editorial hiney in a libelous sling, and is now being forced to not only reap the bitter fruit they sowed, but eat it, along with a heaping pile of crow.
Several years ago, News Corp was rocked by an investigation into one of its own newspapers, News of the World, over allegations of voice mail hacking, a snafu which eventually led to the closure of the tabloid. While the Rowling fiasco doesn’t rise anywhere near to the level of News Corp’s blunder, it does raise serious questions for emerging authors as to whether the fortune and fame which so many seek is really worth the cost. If this judgment does anything, it should compel writers and emerging authors to remain both ambitious and circumspect as to the true costs of success, as well as the need to ensure they market in a way which focuses on the work, and not on the life of the individual.
The world of journalism would be wise to heed this word of caution as well.