Investigative Reporting is an Inherently Contentious Business

By Heinrich Bohmke

In December 2014, Sean Woods received the call editors dread the most. A Rolling Stone reporter told him she no longer stood by her story of a horrible rape supposedly committed by frat boys at the University of Virginia. The feature, published a few weeks earlier, broke readership records at the iconic magazine. It caused a national uproar. It is not hard to see why. It is the dramatic account of a young woman, lured by her date to a fraternity house, there to be gang-raped on broken glass by seven young initiates. The line the story took was that this heinous crime was further compounded by the defensive, almost dismissive, response of University authorities. The individual victim’s experience was emblematic of a ‘culture’ female students faced on campuses across the US.

Sabrina Erdely is an experienced contributor to Rolling Stone. Her latest story, A Rape on Campus, went through a fact checker, an editor and legal counsel. Other writers, however, notably in the Washington Post, had no difficulty exposing her exposé. At best, it was shoddy, prejudicial journalism with the underlying claim still intact. Fair to middling, Erdely was taken in by a teenage lie, which the elementary techniques of investigative reporting could easily have detected. At worst, Jackie’s account was an inherently improbable hoax. The reason Erdely recounted it at all was that it confirmed her ideological and ‘gothic’ expectation of how male undergraduates were apt to behave. Erdely’s story flowed from the pen of one possessed, as Cathy Young put it, of “the troubling zealotry of advocates for whom believing rape claims is somewhat akin to a matter of religious faith”.

Rolling Stone approached the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism with a simple and acute brief. Would Steve Coll help them understand how they had got things so terribly wrong? This review has just been published. It found that the writer and editors were far too deferential to the single pseudonymous source, the victim, Jackie. Sensitive to her emotional well-being, Rolling Stone permitted Jackie to dictate the scope of the investigation and even their own questions to her. Erdely further failed to verify crucial facts such as that the alleged rapist actually existed or that Jackie’s contemporaneous claims to friends matched what she was saying now. Erdely’s breach of rules did not end there. In what a Washington Post writer called an ‘unfathomable deceit’, Erdely and her editor misattributed dialogue and unfairly deprived the targets of her investigation of an opportunity to reply to – or discount – intensely damaging accusations.

The Coll review has itself attracted edifying commentary from Jon Rosen, for instance. Amidst all the condemnation of Rolling Stone, there is a sense that this is a learning moment for the profession as a whole. While some of the faults of the piece flow from Erdely’s unique and perhaps even malicious failings as the author, other errors are common to many in the profession. The error that has attracted the least commentary so far is the idea that Jackie’s credibility was legitimately enhanced because her detailed story stayed consistent over its retellings and because of her ‘confident’ demeanour during these narrations. Many a journalist has fallen into these two holes before.

The Coll review states that Erdely “remembered being ‘a bit incredulous’ about the vividness of some of the details Jackie offered, such as the broken glass from the smashed table. Yet Jackie had been ‘confident, she was consistent.’ Erdely repeats the quality of consistency in Jackie’s versions of events in an interview to Slate. This is what convinced her. All those details, staying the same.

The fact-checker, who spent four hours on the phone reviewing Jacqui’s story was also impressed by her vivid consistency. “She wasn’t just answering, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ she was correcting me.”

In ascribing credibility to a story because it stays consistent, investigative journalists are committing what amounts to a fallacy in evidentiary terms. Muck-raking is the younger profession and journalists are well advised to take heed of the extreme caution, amounting to a rule, with which the older profession of lawyering treats prior consistent statements. Contrary to common sense, when a witness repeats an accusation he has made on a prior occasion, this does not really increase the credibility of his claim. That witness could be consistently lying or consistently telling the truth. Mere consistency does not tell one whether the scale is rigged or not.

Of course, if a witness is accused of recently fabricating a version, the fact that he has long been making the same claim is a relevant rebuttal. Strangely, while prior consistency does not augment credibility, prior inconsistency does validly impeach a witness. There certainly were material and conspicuous inconsistencies in Jackie’s story, if only Erdely had bothered to find them.

Demeanour is another notoriously unreliable measure of a person’s honesty. Studies show that Erdely had odds little better than flipping a coin in discerning whether Jackie was telling the truth from her ‘confidence’. Confidence means as little as her being coy. Indeed, Erdely reads confidence as increasing Jackie’s credibility during some of their interactions, while her fear and reticence during other encounters does exactly the same thing. This underscores the unreliable nature of demeanour as a sign of truth-telling.

Investigative reporting is an inherently contentious business. If the target is important and well-resourced, if the stakes are high, there will be significant, co-ordinated and biased blow-back. The greater the impact of a piece, the shriller the shrieks of indignation, the sterner the letters from lawyers and the greater sanctimony from scrutinising commentators. When that kind of heat arrives, it is far better to have forensically examined the facts of your story yourself before publication than to have your adversaries do so after. The Coll review has supplied some useful new guidelines by which the dreaded recantation phone call may be avoided. Old law books on evidence may be consulted too for a few additional, cross-over insights on how to assess the credibility of a source.

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