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Confirmation Bias Strikes Again, and Painfully

by Sue Ellen Christian

The Rolling Stone story “A Rape on Campus,” about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, is another journalistic example of confirmation bias at work. This piece offers much to discuss in a classroom regarding ethical and reporting errors.

The people involved in the story – reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the fact checker, and the editors – dismissed important reporting steps, apparently because the story was just too good to challenge. Later, at the request of Rolling Stone, a team led by Steve Coll, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and now dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, undertook an analysis of the reporting and editing missteps.

Al Tompkins of Poynter wrote that confirmation bias seems to have been a factor in this story. “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.”

Chapter 7 of Overcoming Bias includes a list of what reporters succumbing to the confirmation bias might do. Here, I apply the list to the reporting on the U-V case as explained by the Columbia report:

Confirmation bias will cause a reporter to remember information that confirms the hypothesis or story angle better than he/she remembers information that disconfirms it.

Erdely didn’t do enough reporting in order to find information that disconfirmed her angle. But it is important to remember that sources also have this cognitive bias – they remember best the information that fits into their mental picture of how things were supposed to play out or how they wanted them to play out. So reporters should seek corroboration with sources’ memories of events.

We all remember selectively and in a biased way, so plan for that.

Confirmation bias causes reporters to seek out only sources that they believe will support the hypothesis.

Erdely was concerned about protecting her primary source, Jackie, so she did not vigorously pursue the sources that may have countered Jackie’s version of events – specifically, the alleged perpetrators. The alleged ringleader, “Drew,” whom Jackie said invited her to the fraternity party, for example, was a critical source to actually interview and name (the story used a pseudonym).

As Poynter’s Tompkins rightly noted, reporting on sensitive topics doesn’t mean that source accounts shouldn’t be fully vetted. Tompkins wrote, “Don’t let sensitivity stop the reporting in rape cases.”

Confirmation bias causes reporters to treat sources critical of the hypothesis in an aggressive or argumentative way.

In this case, the aggression was passive: When seeking comment from the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, Erdely didn’t fully disclose to her source the details of what she would write about them. The fraternity didn’t have enough information to fully respond to the story she was writing. Additionally, the three friends quoted in the story were not contacted by Erdely, who relied on Jackie’s account of their unsupportive responses to her attack.

Confirmation bias causes reporters to interpret unanswered questions in a way that infers hypothesis confirmation.

When Erdely asked Jackie to give her Drew’s last name and perhaps a way to contact him, Jackie became upset, according to Erdely. Rather than considering whether or not this reaction might be hiding a nonexistent aggressor, Erdely took it as in keeping with the emotions expected of a victim.

The Rolling Stone story presents the fraternity members as planning and conspiring to execute the attack: Seven men waiting in a dark room to which Jackie was led by her date. That, noted Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, was an unanswered question of enormous magnitude: “If this allegation alone hadn’t triggered an all-out scramble at Rolling Stone for more corroboration, nothing would have . . . The ‘grooming’ anecdote indicates not only that Erdely believed whatever diabolical things about these frat guys [that were] told her, she wanted to believe them.”

Confirmation bias causes reporters to give the comments of sources supporting the hypothesis more emphasis, space or more prominence in a story.

Jackie’s account of the attack is all readers know. Corroborating evidence such as a police report, hospital documentation or documents from a university investigation (or lack of any of these) are not part of the story. Jackie is the prominent voice throughout.

Confirmation bias causes reporters to evaluate sources and information confirming the hypothesis less critically.

Sean Woods, the principle editor on the story, was quoted in the Columbia report as saying: “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” Woods said. “We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”

Erdely told the Columbia Journalism School team that, “If this story was going to be about Jackie, I can’t think of many things that we would have been able to do differently. … Maybe the discussion should not have been so much about how to accommodate her but should have been about whether she would be in this story at all.”

Confirmation bias causes reporters to regard disconfirming information as unusual, superficial or of poor quality.

Jackie didn’t produce the bloodstained red dress she said she had worn on the night she said she was attacked. The messages that Erdely left at the number that Jackie gave her to reach her mother received no response. Those are just two examples of information that was missing that should have signaled a problem to the Rolling Stone reporter and her editors.

Perhaps the best lessons out of this failed piece, which raises real concerns about its consequences on the willingness of rape victims to publicly share their stories, are the classroom lessons. Let’s hope that by reviewing the missteps in this reporting, all future such missteps remain purely academic.

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