What happened at Rolling Stone was not Jackie’s fault

Overcome confirmation bias with responsible reporting

Last week, a slew of journalists began questioning the trustworthiness of the University of Virginia fraternity gang-rape story published in Rolling Stone on November 19. I wrote one of those pieces, but the two most notable came from Worth editor Richard Bradley, because his piece was first, and Hanna Rosin and Allison Benedikt, because theirs was rigorously reported, subtle, and cautious.

The main criticism was that the author of the Rolling Stone piece, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, never interviewed–indeed, never seemed to have tried to contact–the young men who allegedly punched a first-year student named Jackie, shoved her through a glass table, and one after the other raped her while she lay on the shards. Erdely had been given several details that could have identified “Drew,” the young frat brother who allegedly led Jackie into the dark room, but Erdely didn’t talk to him, either. From the way she dodged and weaved around Rosin’s and other reporters’ questions about her methods, it’s not clear whether she knew or tried to find out the names of any of the other men in the room.

Different reasons were given for those omissions at different points. During a podcast with Rosin on Slate’s DoubleX, Erdely said vaguely that she “reached out” to the alleged perpetrators “in multiple ways,” including consulting an outdated online directory of the fraternity, but wound up talking only to the fraternity’s local president. When I called Erdely, she wouldn’t talk to me but her editor, Sean Woods, did. He confirmed something I’d heard elsewhere, which is that she’d had made a deal with Jackie not to talk to the accused, presumably because their anger would have made her life unbearable.

Some people came to Erdely’s defense, particularly on Twitter and Facebook, but also in the media. They thought the criticisms came dangerously close to the knee-jerk impulse to dismiss rape victims’ stories that they said cops have shown for years. And they insisted Erdely was being held to a standard rarely adhered to in crime reporting. “If a reporter were doing a story about a university accused of failing to address the mugging or robbery of a student, that reporter would not be expected to interview the alleged mugger or robber,” Helen Benedict, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, told The New York Times.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Now that several details of Jackie’s story appear not to check out–there was no party at the frat house that night, no frat brother fits the description she provided, and so on–and Rolling Stone has issued a non-apology apology that hints that Jackie’s more at fault than the magazine is, people like me could say we were vindicated and leave it at that.

But the question remains: Why should Erdely have tried to speak with the alleged rapists? After all, as several people wrote me, it’s not as if the men would have actually talked to her. The obvious reply is that one of them might have been stupid enough to try to give his side. What’s more, if she’d dug up some names, she could have run a Web search and started calling around about the men. She could have tried to find out whether any of them had a history of sexual misconduct. She could have located some of their friends and asked them what they might know. She could have determined whether there indeed was a party at the fraternity that night.

But there’s another argument that needs making. It comes from the philosopher Karl Popper. In a famous 1963 paper called “Science as Falsification,” Popper set out to estimate the scientific value of popular theories–Freudianism, Marxism–that huge numbers of his peers held to be true, because these theories had the power to explain almost everything. Their truths “appeared manifest; and unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth; who refuse to see it, either because it was against their class interest, or because of their repressions.”

The problem with these thought-systems, Popper decided, is that they were too true. They explained too much. “It began to dawn on me that this apparent strength was in fact their weakness,” he wrote.

What Popper had stumbled on was what psychologists would later call “confirmation bias”–our innate urge to see only evidence that confirms beliefs we hold to be self-evident, and dismiss facts that challenge those convictions. Erdely told Rosin that she’d gone all around the country looking for rape survivors and was delighted when she stumbled on Jackie. She was obviously traumatized, and her story illustrated everything Erdely knew to be true–that frat boys rape girls and universities are indifferent to rape survivors.

Erdely told Rosin that she’d based her story solely on Jackie’s version because she found her “credible.” Erdely’s editors found her “credible” too, so much so that they let Erdely waive the usual journalistic protocols, such as getting more than one source on a story about a horrible crime. And readers found Jackie credible because everyone knows that there’s an epidemic of rape on campuses around the country and women hardly ever level false rape charges, because why would they put themselves through that?

Popper would have said that Erdely and her editors were all in the grip of a myth. He’d have used that word not because rape isn’t a problem in this country–obviously, it is–but because they had never subjected their beliefs to the test of falsifiability. Myths become theories only when they are tested; “Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or refute it,” he wrote. He went even further: He argued that evidence only corroborates a theory if it emerges out of an attempt to falsify it. Had Erdely been open to the possibility that Jackie was wrong and gone out looking for evidence to exonerate the alleged perpetrators but found instead a mountain of sleaze, then that would have been the time to deem Jackie “credible.” (It would not have been the time to stop digging for corroborating facts about the crime, however.)

Popper, of course, was talking about the scientific method, not journalism. But remember, the Rolling Stone story was taken as gospel truth for a week after it came out. UVA’s president suspended the school’s fraternities because of it. Editorials everywhere opined that the system for handling campus rape was broken. (I wrote one of them, I’m sorry to say.)

Journalism is how we come to know about the world. It has to proceed at a much faster pace than science, but it has as much and sometimes more impact. We readers who can’t do the fact-finding for ourselves have to trust reporters to be good empiricists, to subject their hypotheses to the best test of falsifiability they reasonably can. When reporters don’t do that, they should be held accountable. What happened at Rolling Stone was not Jackie’s fault. It was Erdely’s and Rolling Stone‘s. They should own up to it.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Judith Shulevitz was, until Friday, a senior editor at The New Republic. She is also the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time (2010).