Journalism Society Criticizes Rolling Stone’s “El Chapo” Interview

The ethics chair for the Society of Professional Journalists was one of the most prominent voices to criticize the magazine's handling of an interview with Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Lorea, conducted by actor Sean Penn with the help of Mexican actress Kate del Castillo.

The decision by Rolling Stone to send an Academy Award-winning actor to do an interview with an infamous fugitive drug lord added another surprising wrinkle to the tale of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Lorea’s capture last week.

But, reading between the lines of Sean Penn’s rambling tale of meeting with Guzmán in an undisclosed location, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) saw something it didn’t like: The magazine had given Guzmán approval over the article.

Andrew Seaman, the chair of SPJ’s ethics committee, was among many who rebuked the decision of the magazine’s editorial staff to reach out to Guzmán. (Penn made the connection after working with Kate del Castillo, a Mexican actress who had sympathized with the drug lord.) While the fugitive didn’t ask for any changes to the article, simply allowing for the opportunity compromised the entire story, Seaman argued.

“Allowing any source control over a story’s content is inexcusable,” Seaman wrote in a blog post on SPJ’s website. “The practice of pre-approval discredits the entire story—whether the subject requests changes or not. The writer, who in this case is an actor and activist, may write the story in a more favorable light and omit unflattering facts in an attempt to not to be rejected.”

The criticism comes in the midst of a journalistic rough patch for Rolling Stone. At the end of 2014, the magazine was forced to retract “A Rape on Campus,” an article about an alleged gang rape on the campus of the University of Virginia. The article was largely based on the comments of a single source, whose veracity later came into question.

The society’s rebuke of the Sean Penn story is particularly noteworthy in this context, as SPJ was one of the magazine’s biggest critics of the magazine’s handling of the UVA story.

“The magazine responded to the report by doing nothing,” Seaman reminded readers.

In an interview with The New York Times that was something of a response to Seaman’s comments, Rolling Stone founder and editor Jann Wenner discounted the debate that the El Chapo story has created.

“I don’t think it was a meaningful thing in the first place,” Wenner said of the quote approval. “We have let people in the past approve their quotes in interviews.”

Sean Penn and Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Lorea. (Rolling Stone handout photo)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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