Rolling Stone got taken by a fabulist.
Sunday night, the Columbia Journalism Review released its exhaustive report on what went wrong with the magazine’s blockbuster story about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity that turned out to be substantially false. And we learned what Rolling Stone plans to do to prevent such mistakes in the future, which is to say basically nothing.
No one is getting fired. Jann Wenner, the magazine’s owner, expects that Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author of the article in question, will continue to write for them. Her apology, also released last night, says in part: “I allowed my concern for Jackie’s well-being, my fear of re-traumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts. These are mistakes I will not make again.” So everyone is basically saying the same thing: Their compassion for rape victims allowed them to be taken by a liar. Big oops, won’t do that again! Nothing to see here, so can we all move along?
It’s not that this version is wrong — I think at this point we can stop dancing around the fact that “Jackie” is a fabulist. The Rolling Stone report adds some detail to this, including the suggestion that the two additional alleged victims of gang rapes at Phi Kappa Psi were also creations of Jackie’s imagination. But dealing with fabulists isn’t some kind of rare hazard that journalists can’t be expected to anticipate. People lie to journalists all the time, for fun and profit. They tell self-serving lies designed to get them out of trouble, or self-aggrandizing lies designed to puff themselves up. They tell lies of kindness to shield others from shame or worse, and lies designed to hurt people they hate. They also tell bizarre lies about things that bring them no benefit at all, for reasons that a psychologist might be able to explain but I cannot. And unfortunately, reporters get taken.
But while it is not wrong, it is also not enough. Usually, when a reporter gets taken, you will hear some combination of the following:
The reporter was young and inexperienced and found out the hard way that sources lie.
The reporter was under heavy deadline pressure that did not allow them to check what the source was saying.
The reporter had literally no way to verify what happened — if someone tells you they were the sole survivor of a massacre in a region torn by civil war, who are you going to interview to check it out?
None of these applies to the Rolling Stone story. Erdely spent months working on it, and she delivered 400 pages of notes to Rolling Stone. It turns out that she was in my class at the University of Pennsylvania and has been working as a journalist for most of the time since, so it’s safe to say that she’s no naive spring chicken, unfamiliar with the wicked ways of sources. She had layers of editors and fact checkers who were aware of where she was getting her information. So what happened?
The following is what I gleaned from the report, some of it outright and some of it from inference.
1. It started with the subject matter. Rolling Stone’s defense that it went wrong because it just cared too much about rape victims is wholly inadequate. But their feeling that they needed to tread lightly around rape victims is certainly part of the explanation. It doesn’t seem to have seriously considered the possibility that the story could just be made up. Over and over, in the editorial decisions the magazine made, you can see that it was worried about getting sued but not about printing something that was false. Angry conservatives may paint this as some version of the “noble lie,” but I really don’t think that’s what happened. I just think that it never occurred to anyone there. Why would someone make up such a horrible story?
But again, “Why would someone make that up?” is not an appropriate answer to your reporting deficiencies. People make up stories for no discernable reason at all — I mean, why would you lie about having bought health insurance on the Obamacare exchanges? Yet someone did. After 20 years in the business, Erdely should have known this.
Moreover, Erdely’s reporting suggests at least two reasons Jackie might have made it up: She first told her story to the school when she got in trouble for failing classes, and connecting with anti-rape groups on campus plugged Jackie into a social network that gave her a feeling of purpose and fellowship. Had Erdely tried harder to contact the friends whose behavior she maligned, she would have heard a third reason: Jackie had a crush, not returned, on one of the friends she called for help that night.
This core belief, which I doubt anyone at Rolling Stone ever consciously examined, blinded them to some major problems with the story: the fact that it was very cinematic, in a way that real stories rarely are, and that the whole thing effectively came from a single source. The subject matter also caused them to treat the story with excessive delicacy, lest they “re-traumatize” her. As I’ll discuss below, I think this became an excuse for bad reporting. But I’m sure it also created a real reluctance to ask hard questions.
2. Confirmation bias. The CJR report talks a lot about confirmation bias, and I think that was at work. But I think that how it operated in this case is subtle.
Classic confirmation bias means that you ask questions that would confirm your theory, rather than ones that would disconfirm it. Say I give you a set of numbers in a set: 2, 4, 6, 8. Now, I say, tell me what the rules for inclusion in this set are. You can ask me a number, and I’ll tell you whether it’s in the set. Almost invariably, the next numbers people suggest are “10” and “12,” and when you agree they’re in the set, they proudly announce that the set is “even numbers.”
False: The set is “all positive integers.” Why did they fail? Because they only suggested numbers that would confirm their theory, which also happen to be in the set. What they didn’t do is suggest an odd number to see if it might also qualify.
That’s not a great account of what happened here: Erdely did ask for possibly disconfirming evidence, such as Jackie’s work records. Where I think confirmation bias came in is that when Jackie provided these things, Erdely took them as positive proof, rather than a simple failure to disconfirm.
What do I mean? Jackie said she worked at the campus aquatic center. Erderly asked for, and got, her work records, which is good reporting. But what do those records show? They show that Jackie worked at the aquatic center. Working at the aquatic center is not evidence of rape.
Erdely checked a lot of details — did Jackie talk to the university? Did she work at the aquatic center? Did other people notice her get depressed her freshman year? Now, as disconfirming evidence, some of these are potentially story-killing: If Jackie says she worked at the aquatic center and she didn’t, then you start wondering what else she might be lying about. But as positive evidence, they tell you basically nothing. Nor does “she was depressed and not going to classes,” a condition that afflicts a lot of freshmen who haven’t been raped, including me 25 years ago. She took confirmation of side details as confirmation of the story, when it was not. And presumably, that made her more comfortable not confirming the core details of the rape, by talking to the witnesses: the perpetrators and the friends who saw Jackie after it happened. This should be a warning to all reporters: Piling up confirmations of marginal details can make you feel as if you’re standing on a mountain of evidence, when in fact you’re in a deep hole.
I suspect that confirmation bias also led Erdely to botch the one attempt she did make to get comment from the alleged perpetrators. This is the note she sent to the fraternity’s chapter president: “‘I’ve become aware of allegations of gang rape that have been made against the UVA chapter of Phi Kappa Psi,’ Erdely wrote. ‘Can you comment on those allegations?'” As the CJR review notes, this is extremely vague. Had she provided more detail, and perhaps made it clear that a lengthy account was going to be the centerpiece of her story, then Phi Kappa Psi could have provided a rebuttal and stopped the story in its tracks. But how do you rebut a vague accusation that a gang rape has occurred at your house at some point?
Erdely’s question basically assumes what it wants to prove. If the story’s true, then it is a pro forma elicitation of a pro forma denial, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Of course, if the story isn’t true, and you’re asking questions of a 21-year-old college student who doesn’t have a PR person on staff and doesn’t know enough to elicit details so that he can rebut them specifically, then you’ve added another piece of non-evidence to your mountain.
3. Privacy laws and the norms of survivor support groups created the illusion of institutional verification. Erdely first heard the story from Emily Renda, a rape survivor and alumna who now works on the issue at UVA. Renda mentioned the alleged attack in congressional testimony. Erdely seems to have assumed in some way that this meant the university had confirmed the attack. This impression was heightened by various privacy laws, which make it virtually impossible for the university to discuss specific cases. Erdely was operating under the assumption that the university knew this had happened and was stonewalling. In fact, Renda had the same information Erdely did: the story she heard from Jackie. The university did not have enough information to take action, but it also could not discuss these details with Erdely. The lack of disconfirmation seems to have been taken as positive proof that it happened, rather than what it was: a legal prohibition on sharing information.
4. The fear of losing the story. This needs to be highlighted, because it is the only thing that explains some really inexplicable decisions.
Erdely’s statement focuses on her fear of retraumatizing Jackie, something that also comes up in the CJR report. But something less salutary also appears: the fear of losing a really good story. These things seem to have sort of gotten blended together, so that when problems emerged with the reporting, everyone involved at Rolling Stone was able to convince themselves to go forward anyway on the grounds that Jackie is a trauma victim and it’s dangerous to retraumatize her. Yet they don’t seem to have been worried about retraumatizing her by running her story in a national magazine.
Because most of my readers are not journalists, it seems worth noting that if this story had not fallen apart, it likely would have walked away with a National Magazine Award. It checks all the boxes: important social issue, beautiful writing, a vivid and gruesome event at its core, a heart-rending miscarriage of justice. When Jackie threatened to slip away, she was threatening to torpedo Rolling Stone’s major coup. There were certainly other stories that Erdely could have used instead, but less sensational stories that are more typical of campus rapes would not get the kind of readership or professional recognition that the magazine would earn for uncovering a clear-cut and horrific crime that the university had inexplicably failed to pursue.
I’m not saying Erdely and her editors were willing to print something false, or even something they suspected was possibly false, for professional advancement. There’s no reason to think that this is the case, and there are many reasons not to. Printing a false story did not win Rolling Stone an award. It won it painful months of jeers from peers and the public alike. I can’t say that no one would go ahead and take that risk, because Stephen Glass and Jack Kelley and others have done just that. But there’s a reason that those people did what they did on their own and were fired when it was uncovered: 99.999 percent of journalists would quickly decide that this was a) wrong and b) professional suicide. One person might be amoral and crazy enough to try it, but good luck finding another person amoral and crazy enough to go along with you.
Rather, I think that because they assumed it was true, their primary fear was losing a major story, rather than getting taken by a fabulist. Losing a story is disappointing. But getting taken by a fabulist is shameful — and potentially career-ending. I don’t think that anyone ever made a conscious trade-off between these two things; rather, I think the operating assumption that Jackie was telling the truth was so strong that they started thinking of talking to the other side as an annoying procedural step to elicit a pro-forma comment, rather than an important part of the reporting process. The same extraordinary features that made this story so potent also made it unlikely that anyone was going to be able to offer a convincing defense; you can claim that a one-on-one date rape was actually consensual, but that’s not a plausible explanation for a gang rape that took place on top of a bed of broken glass. So if you start by assuming the story is true, you also assume that you’re not going to get much worth printing from the perpetrators.
Too, by the time the magazine started making the really bad decisions, Erdely was also well into the story-writing process. Erdely did what a lot of journalists do: She handed her editors an early draft while she was still reporting. There’s nothing wrong with this — for one thing, you may want to know approximately what you’re putting in the story before you offer sources a chance to respond, rather than spend a lot of time eliciting comments from people you’re not going to mention. But it meant that by the time they were really grappling with their ability to contact the main witnesses, immense amounts of time and labor had already been invested in Jackie’s story. And as we know from many, many human endeavors, people have a very hard time cutting their losses when they have already invested a lot in something. They’re more likely to double down in an attempt to salvage their investment.
And double down they did. The single most inexplicable decision made by Erdely and her editors was to paper over the reporting gaps by using pseudonyms for the rapist who was known to Jackie — “Drew” — and the three friends she called after the alleged attack. This is seriously disordered thinking on everyone’s part. I’m not entirely opposed to the use of pseudonyms, but they should be used sparingly, and only in cases in which you’re trying to protect people who are taking serious risks in giving you information.
None of the friends had given Rolling Stone information at great personal risk. And one certainly hopes that they were not trying to protect Drew from the consequences of his actions. So why give him a pseudonym? It serves only two purposes: to conceal the fact that Rolling Stone does not know his name, and to protect Rolling Stone from being sued. Using pseudonyms for either of these purposes seems wildly inappropriate.
Both the magazine and the reporter further blurred the reporting gaps by writing the story in a way that suggested Erdely had tried to contact friends when she hadn’t, and apparently didn’t even know their full names; Erdely did note that she didn’t know who Drew was in one draft, but her editor removed the caveat. After the story came out, they muddied the waters even more by answering direct questions from other reporters with what you might call “nonresponsive responses.” When asked about her attempts to contact the perpetrators of this particular attack, Erdely talked about what she had done to contact the fraternity; Sean Woods, her editor,told Paul Farhi of the Washington Post that “we verified their existence [by talking to Jackie’s friends]. … I’m satisfied that these guys exist and are real. We knew who they were.” If they thought they had done all the reporting they needed to, why did they then obscure what they had done?
What I see when I read through the CJR report is the story of journalists who had an incredible story, one that would get them readers and professional acclaim, and, perhaps most important, give them the opportunity to right a great wrong. Their excitement about the story, their determination to tell it, blinded them to the problems, so that the old joke about a story being “too good to check” actually came true, with terrible consequences. And that should be a lesson to every journalist out there: The better your story, the harder you need to work to disconfirm it. Because the odds are, your brain is sending you all the wrong signals.
Of course, it’s not exactly news that our emotions can mislead us. That’s why we have professional rules, such as “always contact the other side for comment,” in the first place. Rolling Stone got taken by a fabulist. But it was not the victim of fraud; it was a co-conspirator in self-deception.
To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at [email protected]
To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at [email protected]