Journalism loses fearless reporter

By Jessi Stone Assistant editor | Jun 27, 2013

Michael Hastings, 33, died June 18 in a car crash in Los Angeles. While I’m sure his death is a great personal loss for his friends and family, it’s a greater loss for a dying breed of journalists.

His name may not ring any bells for you, but I bet you remember his work of exposes’ — most notably “The Runaway General.”

Hastings’ is the Rolling Stone journalist who is credited with ending Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s career after his profile on McChrystal was published in 2010. The general, who at the time was the commander of the Afghanistan war, was exposed in the article for his arrogance and failures.

He is quoted criticizing President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, foreign ambassadors and other military personnel. Hastings’ portrayal of the untouchable general cost McChrystal his position.

Hastings was known and respected in the world of journalism for his unwillingness to “cozy up to power.” A decision to print an article like that is not made lightly. Fact checkers pour over the information, managing editors weigh every possible outcome, but in the end it comes down to telling the entire — sometimes ugly — truth.

Too many reporters today are more concerned with gaining and maintaining access to those in power that they are willing to close their eyes and ears to the truth. At best they will report watered down versions of the truth and at worst they will regurgitate a press release provided by a politician’s public relations machine.

Even though McChrystal’s aides disputed that the printed comments were “off the record,” they never argued that he was misquoted.

We’ll probably never know whether the results of the article were intended to be off the record or not. The question readers and journalists have to ask themselves is “does it matter?” Are those rules worth breaking when it’s the right thing to do? Is the public better off knowing the truth about how our leaders act in a critical time of war?

As journalists, we must remain honest and loyal to our readers first and foremost — that’s who we work for and that’s who matters. That said — I believe Hastings did the right thing. Even in his short life, he is one of the lucky few who will leave behind a respectable legacy of journalistic integrity.

That is what all journalists should strive for in their reporting. There are three pieces of advice given to me by trusted mentors that I live by professionally.

My first journalism teacher told me, “Credibility is the only thing a journalist has. Once you lose it, you can’t get it back.”

Objectivity — a crucial part of establishing credibility — is hard to come by in today’s media. The so-called TV news personalities aren’t even expected to be objective anymore. You know their leanings within the first few minutes and instantly lose all credibility with viewers.

My father told me “Never burn your bridges; you never know when you may have to cross them again.” While I try to avoid bridge burning whenever possible, I must always be prepared for that outcome when I write a news story that I know may upset someone. But I can’t let that outweigh the importance of the truth.

My first editor told me, “We’re not here to make friends; we’re here to report the news.” This doesn’t mean I don’t like the people I write about. It just means I can’t let my personal feelings toward someone affect the outcome of a story.

Journalists are not perfect — we’re human and we often make mistakes. We can only learn from those mistakes and be honest with ourselves about our shortcomings. I strive every day to create a consistent record of reporting accurately and fairly. Hopefully that will allow me to leave behind a legacy that speaks for itself and inspires others to seek the truth.

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