To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Being There: How Rolling Stone's UVA 'Rape Culture' Fiasco Makes The Case For Shoe Leather Reporting

As Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s Rolling Stone campus rape story began its collapse in early December, critics and commentators sought to place blame for what could go down as one of American magazine journalism’s greatest train wrecks. 

Citing the “leading questions” that a UVA rape “survivor’ had described being asked by the Rolling Stone reporter, Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple said that Erdely had pursued her story with an “agenda.” Her bias was also communicated through a “proclivity to stereotype,” in this case, about what Rubin Erdely labelled “elitist fraternity culture.”

Likewise the blame assigned to “confirmation bias,” by former TNR science editor Judith Shulevtiz who described it in CJR, referencing the philosopher Karl Popper, who originated the term. 

“Confirmation bias,” Shulevitz explained, was the result of “our innate urge to see only evidence that confirms beliefs we hold to be self-evident, and dismiss facts that challenge those convictions.” Noting an early December Slate podcast interview conducted by Hannah Rosin that became critical to the story’s unraveling, Shulevitz continued:

Erdely told Rosin 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.

(She) 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? 

As someone who has written quite extensively about media bias (two books, out of three) I’m quite open to these arguments, having documented the way that an overdetermined deference to the pieties of organized feminism has encouraged miscoverage of what turn out to be bogus allegations of sexual assault. Some of the examples I wrote about have a lot in common with the Rolling Stone campus rape disaster, such as the Duke lacrosse team rape case of 2006 as well as “The Women’s War," a 2007 Times Magazine report on sexual assault in the post 9-11 military. In that latter case, one of the alleged victims, a Navy seabee, claimed to have been raped while serving in Iraq when in fact she never even deployed there.

Still, as much as media bias is part of what brought the Rolling Stone piece low, the fundamental trouble with Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s reporting actually starts a bit closer to the ground. In fact, it stems to a large degree from the minimal amount of time she spent in Charlottesville itself conducting good-old fashioned, beat-the-bricks, knock-on-doors, face-to-face, shoe leather reporting. Legwork we used to call it.

Although it took months for her to establish UVA as her focus, Rubin Erdley spent exactly one weekend there---maybe as few as two nights in total---to put together a major investigative piece immersing us in UVA’s “culture of rape,” meeting her centerpiece source, Jackie, for the first and for the only time on that single weekend visit. Instead, Rubin Erdely relied on internet searches, telephone interviews, Skype, text, instant messaging, chat rooms, social media and other forms of “remote,” even “virtual” reporting with which we are all now so digitally smitten, especially those attracted to “Big Data” reporting, as Rubin Erdley admitted at a Temple University media studies event. 
No doubt these tools are essential for a magazine reporter, especially in a time of meager travel budgets. You certainly want to use them to maximum advantage, improving journalistic reach, access and penetration. But on overreliance on these reporting tools can open the door more readily to “confirmation bias” in a way that they wouldn’t if they had been balanced by face-to-face interaction. They also can make a reporter vulnerable to exaggeration and manipulation on the part of sources, and might encourage on-the ground efforts to become perfunctory or decorative.

Stories like this one---a complicated story where the human factor is so important, where trust and credibility between reporter and source plays such a critical role and is best established face-to-face, and where “place” has the power to shape a journalistic understanding of cultural context and to reveal human truths that you just can’t get electronically, cry out for "being there.” It's just too easy to get snowed, lied to or spun at a distance--- too easy for the "story line" to take over from the facts and for someone’s BS detector, even a “finely tuned” BS detector, as Rubin Erdely claims to have, to malfunction.

If Rubin Erdely was hamstrung by an overbearing deadline or a tight travel allowance, then Rolling Stone needs to think about being more generous, at least if it wants to stay in the business of serious investigative reporting. Stories like this need a real presence on the ground to get right.  


The timeline Rubin Erdely describes in the Rolling Stone piece itself, cross referenced with her Twitter feed (inactive since November 30 when controversy broke out) as well as the emails UVA released through Freedom of Information requests and some interviewing I did show that she flew from Philadelphia to Charlottesville on Thursday September 11. Among other things she met with some of her student sources at a popular Charlottesville coffee shop, went to a monthly meeting of the Board of Visitors that Friday, took a tour of frat row with a group of sexual assault “survivors,” later that Friday night. She also met in person with Jackie and another UVA rape survivor at a restaurant on the Corner, just outside off the university grounds, although it’s unclear whether that restaurant meeting was before or after the frat row tour.

According to Emily Renda, a young UVA administrator and rape "survivor" who introduced Rubin Erdely to Jackie and served as a fixer of sorts for the overall article, Renda met Erdely at a parking facility after she landed in Charlottesville and gave her directions to the coffee house. Renda told me Rubin Erdely stayed no longer than Sunday, and perhaps even left as early as Saturday. Renda also said that Rubin Erdely had not yet met her primary source for the piece, Jackie, until that point.

In the emails UVA released, Rubin Erdely seems to have planned another reporting trip but had to cancel it, informing the UVA PR rep on Monday September 15 that she would be “unable to return to campus this week” and would therefore have to conduct an interview with UVA president Theresa Sullivan by phone. The last scene in the piece references events occurring in “the third week of September,” in such a way as to suggest that Rubin Erdely was there for them herself. But at least one of those events---a report of the disappearance of the UVA student Hannah Graham who was later found slain---did not occur in that time frame but on the Saturday of the writer’s weekend visit  (September 11th-13th or September 14th). This suggests that she either wanted to create the impression of being in Charlottesville longer than she actually was or that her magazine made a fact-checking error. Given the overall slipshod way it checked the story’s other supposed “facts,” the latter is more likely. 

What this means is that for a major 9000 word investigative piece about UVA’s “culture of rape,” Rubin Erdely spent no more than 72 hours on the ground, maybe even as little as 48, during which she met her main source for the very first time, at least in the usual, pre-digital sense of “meeting” someone. Not exactly cultural immersion, whether it’s a “culture of rape” or any other subcultural phenomenon.  

It actually seems to be a magazine writers’ version of the old New York Times “toe-touch,” which was banned in the wake of Jayson Blair’s abuse of it. In the “toe touch,” a harried national correspondent would do all his or her reporting from a newsroom or a bureau desk then fly off to wherever he or she needed to be to be able to slap a “dateline” on the story. This gave the impression of “being there” in the place where news was happening when in reality the correspondent had spent only as much time on the ground that it took to get a return flight home, often never even leaving the airport. Rubin Erdley’s remote reporting methods stand in contrast to the legwork conducted by the team that Washington Post sent into the field. Among other acts of basic, elementary journalism, the Post, led by reporter Taylor Shapiro (T. Rees)  actually interviewed the three student “friends of Jackie’s” who allegedly saw her right after Jackie’s 2012 rape but who Rubin Erdley never actually located or spoke with.


In an interview she did with the Washington Post, Rubin Erdely has said she first “met” Jackie over the phone. Jackie, she said 

Was absolutely bursting to [her] story. I could not believe how it poured out of her in one long narrative. She spoke so fast, I hardly had a chance to ask her a question. She was dying to share it. 

Rubin Erdely says she then spent a long time putting Jackie’s story through the ringer, presumably by phone and by email, with Jackie and with other knowledgeable sources. According to Rubin Erdley, the story checked out. Since she only met Jackie for the first time on her one and only visit to Charlottesville, it’s safe to deduce that shortly after speaking with Jackie on the phone that first time, she did not hop a plane or drive to follow up in the flesh, as a more careful reporter might. 

Judging the veracity of rape victim testimony is more than scrutinizing the facts of "the story;” it’s body language, narrative progression, pacing, consistency, and a host of other subtle, subliminal cues that combine into what we call instinct or intuition. This is one reason why sex-crimes detectives don’t take reports from rape victims over the phone, beyond basic courtesy and sensitivity. As neuroscience has it, the face transmits far more data than the human voice; you are more certain to make a dependable decision on someone’s credibility if you can see and hear them instead of just the latter.

As many commentators and critics have noted, the forensic details of Jackie’s three-hour ordeal during which she said seven men raped her over the course of three hours, simply don’t pass “the straight face test,” in the words of one UVA law professor. If anything the torrential way in which Jackie first told the story would have made me suspicious, suggesting a certain exhibitionism (would you tell a stranger about your rape over the phone?) and of being overly practiced. 

If Rubin Erdely had actually had the chance to sit down with Jackie face to face to go over these details before she committed to using Jackie's story as her centerpiece, she might been more skeptical and found another case to lead her piece. She also might have been less reliant on Jackie in the backend of the piece as a central witness against UVA’s “institutional indifference.” So much of this supposed fecklessness is seen through Jackie’s point of view and rendered in her voice that once Jackie loses personal credibility on her own story, she loses credibility on the other stuff too, despite Rubin Erdley’s insistence that questions about Jackie’s story shouldn’t “sidetrack” the article’s “overarching point.” In fact the real point is that if Rubin Erdely had had a “sit down” with the girl at the front end of her reporting before her trust in her had solidified and before it became too complicated to find another touchstone, Rubin Erdley and Rolling Stone might have been spared a lot of pain.

Another thing to think about is that had Rubin Erdley spent more time on the ground engaged with the physicality of her story, she might have actually walked into the Phi Kappa Psi house itself and looked the frat’s composite photo, usually hanging in foyer or entry hallway of most fraternity houses in order to see whether the names Jackie provided her of her attackers matched up with names of members of the frat at the time Jackie said she was assaulted there. (These composites usually go back for several years, so finding a 2012 composite in the fall of 2014 isn't so difficult to imagine and could have given her the information that she could not find from the frat’s “outdated” contact sheet.”) It’s hard to say whether the composite photo would have had photographs of “Armpit” and “Blanket”---alleged frat members mentioned by nickname in the gang rape sequence--- but you never know. These frats don’t have security desks; if Rubin Erdely was uncomfortable identifying herself as a reporter, she could have walked in and pretended to be someone’s mother or hired a local male stringer. There are ways. And what better way for a writer to involve his or her reader than a description of journeying into the very belly of the beast?

Beyond helping to verify names of the Jackie's attackers, presumably within the bounds of the agreement that Rubin Erdely had made with Jackie not to rile them against her, time actually inside Phi Psi might have given her a more informed and less pejorative sense of fraternity culture. As described in the Slate podcast Rubin Erdely did, her understanding of frat dynamics is quite distant, cloistered really, making it easy for her to imagine a conspiracy of knowing silence among the brothers. Said Rubin Erdely in her Slate podcast:

I would speculate that life inside a frat house is a probably, you know, you have this kind of communal life where everybody is sort of sharing information…People are living lives closely with one another and it seems impossible to imagine that people didn't know about this.

More time on the ground, especially on a weekday, might have allowed Rubin Erdely to check the registrar’s office for proof that Jackie dropped out of an anthropology class she said she had shared with the attacker who experienced impotence and had to resort to a coke bottle. (My experience tells me you can get lucky with a clerk in person trying to get this information, but rarely so on the phone.) Also the time to actually attend a weekly meeting of UVA’s sexual assault survivor’s group, One Less, instead of reconstructing what those meeting are like courtesy of descriptions she received secondhand and doing so in such a way as to encourage the false notion that She Was There. (Carefully re-read this section; while it’s skillfully written to affect the impression she was there, in fact you can discern she was not.) Being at one of those meetings, which Erdely characterized as UVA’s “true secret society,” would have certainly been good for the “color and quotes” magazine writers live for as a way to establish immediacy. But it also could have opened Rubin Erdely's ears to the possibility that some of the victims in the UVA rape survivor network might be embellishing their stories, in the unavoidable way that groups of undergraduates engage in story-topping no matter what experiences they are sharing, and that these stories represented a recursive information loop that could have thrown Rubin Erdely’s efforts to confirm Jackie’ story off course.  (Renda told me the group meets every Monday; would it have been that hard for Rubin Erdely to extend her stay beyond the weekend?)

Additional ground time might have allowed her to get a better sense of “Stacy,” who the reporter seems to have been connected to courtesy of that “survivor” network.  According to Rubin Erdley, Stacy had brought a complaint to the university sexual misconduct board in the spring of 2014   against a male student who was allowed to remain on campus despite a guilty verdict and “pattern evidence” from two other women who said he had attacked them too. In Stacy’s account, the alleged assailant's wealthy family had threatened to sue her as well as individual UVA deans if they went forward with the complaint.

I found Rubin Erdely’s description of Stacy’s case suspect for a couple of reasons. The description of the assault Stacy said she experienced did not involve anywhere near the kind of vicious rape Jackie had endured but instead involved drunken groping, albeit with “digital penetration,” in a semiconscious haze of “too much whiskey,” which the Charlottesville DA’s office declined to prosecute. More significantly, the writer  references a nine-hour formal hearing into Stacy’s charges, but the hearing is rendered in a secondhand way, probably through Stacy, without specificity. Rubin Erdley also cites Stacy’s claims that the family of the accused interfered with the proceeding against him and threatened legal action against the accuser and the school’s deans without anybody else aside from Stacy confirming that this family harassment actually happened in the way Stacy said it did. 

Any nine-hour formal hearing is going to generate a hearing transcript, a copy of which the complainant and her representative would most likely have received. Would more time on the ground have offered Rubin Erdely the chance to obtain it? Passing such a document to a reporter is often fraught for a victim given the legal and administrative restrictions governing these procedures; at UVA it might actually represent an Honor Code violation. But if she actually met "Stacy" in person and spent enough time to gain her trust, Rubin Erdely might have gotten at least a peek at it. This would have at the very least put her and Rolling Stone’s fact checkers in a more informed position to absorb a very unambiguous email warning from UVA’s press rep that they had their facts wrong on Stacy's case, which they apparently simply dismissed.

More time in situ might also have helped the reporter find material to corobborate Stacy's allegation of the accused family’s interference---letters, email, phone logs. As it stands in the piece, we only have Stacy alluding to the family interference and lawsuit threats with no other attribution or documentation to back her up. How did Rubin Erdely confirm what Stacy had alleged?

To be sure, Rubin Erdley sees herself as someone who has high regard the value of first person reporting and for experience. Her website explains that 

For the sake of her articles Erdely has trekked thorough Tibet, watched an autopsy, joined a religious cult, visited maximum security prisons and once tried out to be a Philadelphia Eagles cheerleader.  

But the UVA regent who accused Rubin Erdely of an act of “drive by journalism” was actually being more literal than he might have imagined. Even the scenes she actually did experience first hand, the frat row tour for example, as well as the scene where she is having a meal with Jackie at a restaurant on The Corner, have a generic, guidebook feel to them. Until I started putting questions to people in the position to know whether she was actually there that night, I had suspicions she might have cribbed some of the on-scene details from YouTube videos, and had "been there" herself via Skype or FaceTime on a tablet or a smartphone but not in person. Maybe these scenes are rendered so superficially because she was just tired, packing too much in for what was, in effect, a pit stop. Parachute journalism--- the whole “get in, get what you came for and get out” involved in it---isn’t easy.


We’re all waiting now for the Columbia Journalism School to issue its report on the UVA rape fiasco, the J School having been given that assignment when Rolling Stone owner Jann Wenner gave up on his own “internal review” for reasons still undisclosed. According to a release from the office of J- School dean Steve Coll, Rolling Stone had asked Columbia to “conduct an independent review of the reporting and editorial decision making that led to the publication of its recent story on sexual violence at the University of Virginia.”  Coll later told the New York Times that he had been promised unfettered access to Rolling Stone’s staff and materials. “We are focusing on the editorial process but have the freedom to move in any direction along the way that we believe would be germane and of public interest,” Coll said.

This gives the impression that Rolling Stone will be opening its editorial books so to speak, and that Columbia will have access to all reportorial materials associated with the story. This presumably means all internal editorial communications, such as emails and memos between the writer and her editors and fact-checkers, as well as traffic between those editors and fact- checkers themselves bearing on what the writer was up to and whether or not they had a sense something might be wrong.  

It’ll be interesting to find out how much Rolling Stone has actually shared with Columbia, whether it is doing so in the spirit of legal “discovery” or whether it set protective limits, a likelihood given the defamation and libel suits that will surely follow. It also will be interesting to learn what Columbia learns of the decision-making involved in the construction of the story itself, which we’re told we will be able to read in articles Steve Coll and his teams will publish in Rolling Stone itself and on the magazine’s website. Even more intriguing, given the importance face-to-face interrogatories play in this kind of reporting, is the question of whether Rubin Erdely is a cooperating witness and whether Coll will be have direct access to her. Such face-to-face access will help move the inquiry beyond the paper and digital trail, which will make it easier to tell whether her journalistic malfeasance stemmed from simple negligence or active wrongdoing---i.e lying to her editors, misleading fact-checkers or somesuch. Now that's a deposition I'd pay money to watch. 

For now though I think it’s safe to say that if Columbia does get access to the tapes and transcripts of the interviews that Rubin Erdley conducted in the process of her reporting, most of those interviews will have been conducted on the phone or by email and not face-to-face. Let’s hope Columbia notices the crucial difference between these two different modes of assessing credibility and determining truth, as well as the role that this difference might have played in this particular journalistic debacle. If the rest of the journalism world takes it as a cautionary tale for the Internet age, so much the better. Tech-savvy reporters,  especially those in the iPhone generation, have come to take some new reporting tools for granted. We've forgotten that while they may extend our reach, it's what they actually grasp that is what's most important. They may make reporting easier, more convenient and less costly, but an overreliance on them at the expense of actually "being there" can make for an awful, and awfully expensive mess. Sometimes you have to reinvent the wheel.   

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