The Columbia Journalism Review published a damning 12,000 word investigation into what went wrong with Rolling Stone‘s retracted story, “A Rape on Campus.” CJR concludes the core reporting problem was confirmation bias. Rolling Stone could have caught the problems with the story before publication if only everyone involved hadn’t been so eager to believe that genteel, blonde frat boys gang-raped a sober freshman at a party.
CJR opens its story with the narrative that Rolling Stone‘s Sabrina Erdely was trying to serve. CJR says the notes indicate she was looking for an “emblematic college rape case.” In Erdely’s own words, she wanted a case that would show, “what it’s like to be on campus now… where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture.”
Of course the example of “rape culture” that Erdely settled on was Jackie’s story. That turned out to be a mistake. But the CJR story makes clear that Erdely did initially make some effort to gather facts that would back up Jackie’s claims:
Once she heard the story, Erdely struggled to decide how much she could independently verify the details Jackie provided without jeopardizing Jackie’s cooperation. In the end, the reporter relied heavily on Jackie for help in getting access to corroborating evidence and interviews. Erdely asked Jackie for introductions to friends and family. She asked for text messages to confirm parts of Jackie’s account, for records from Jackie’s employment at the aquatic center and for health records. She even asked to examine the bloodstained red dress Jackie said she had worn on the night she said she was attacked.
Really, any of these avenues of investigation could have helped confirm or discount Jackie’s story. Jackie provided evidence of some tangential elements but the real proof was always elusive. For instance, Jackie would later tell Erdely that her mother had thrown away the blood-stained red dress.
Still, there were a number of leads Jackie provided which Erdely chose not to follow. The most egregious of these, according to CJR, was contacting the three friends Jackie had called for help the night of the alleged attack. CJR notes that the dialogue Jackie put into the mouths of the friends was clearly going to be a source of embarrassment to them. Two of the friends hear Jackie’s story of sexual assault but do not want her to report it because it might cause them to be disinvited from future frat parties.
Had Erdely contacted any of the friends, she might have learned that Jackie’s account of what was said that night was not accurate. That might have led to more skepticism of Jackie’s entire story. It may also have resulted in Erdely learning that Jackie’s description of the assault had changed dramatically since the night those friends met her on campus.
But Erdely never contacted the three friends. She asked Jackie to introduce her but Jackie never did. She also made one abortive attempt to go around Jackie and get their names but gave up after the person she asked for help said they wanted to check with Jackie first. Rolling Stone chose to use pseudonyms for the three friends, in part because they didn’t want them to be ashamed of their reactions as described by Jackie.
Another massive hole in Rolling Stone‘s reporting was the identity of the man who Jackie claimed organized the gang rape. During most of their interaction for the story, Erdely knew only the alleged attacker’s first name, which Jackie had told her was “Drew.” Erdely made numerous requests for Jackie to give her the full name but the more Erdely pressed the more evasive and reluctant Jackie became. Finally, with only a couple weeks to go before publication, Erdely left Jackie a message proposing the magazine use a pseudonym for the attacker. Suddenly, Jackie began returning Erdely’s calls.
Why didn’t Jackie’s reluctance to provide the name of her attacker, even in confidence, set off alarm bells at Rolling Stone? Why didn’t the missing dress or Jackie’s unwillingness to introduce her friends to the reporter working to tell her story make them rethink her credibility? Here is where CJR gets to the heart of the matter:
[Editor Sean] Woods and Erdely knew Jackie had spoken about her assault with other activists on campus, with at least one suitemate and to UVA. They could not imagine that Jackie would invent such a story. Woods said he and Erdely “both came to the decision that this person was telling the truth.” They saw her as a “whistle blower” who was fighting indifference and inertia at the university.
The problem of confirmation bias – the tendency of people to be trapped by pre-existing assumptions and to select facts that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones – is a well-established finding of social science. It seems to have been a factor here. Erdely believed the university was obstructing justice. She felt she had been blocked. Like many other universities, UVA had a flawed record of managing sexual assault cases. Jackie’s experience seemed to confirm this larger pattern. Her story seemed well established on campus, repeated and accepted.
Simply put, Erdely and her editor had already decided Jackie was a victim, maybe even an ideal victim for their purposes. That led to them going easy on Jackie and making little sustained effort to contact the people (Drew, her three friends) whom Jackie seemingly did not want them to contact.
It also led to Erdely being curt with UVA and with the fraternity who she had already decided were only interested in obstructing the truth. This judgment cost Erdely and Rolling Stone. Had she shared the alleged date of the attack with Phi Kappa Psi, she would have learned there was no party or event that night. Once again she could have had a good reason to question Jackie’s credibility prior to publication, but Erdely had seemingly decided the fraternity had nothing of value to add to her “rape culture” story except as the sputtering villain.
Rolling Stone‘s Managing Editor Will Dana told CJR, “If I had been informed ahead of time of one problem or discrepancy with her overall story, we would have acted upon that very aggressively.” The problem was that no one working for Dana really wanted to find a discrepancy. On the contrary, they were looking for an emblematic case that would make their story about “rape culture” on campus an attention grabber. They certainly found one.