Was Confirmation Bias To Blame For The UVA Story?

Much can be said about the Columbia Journalism Review's comprehensive piece dissecting the failings of Rolling Stone's "A Rape on Campus," but it is the sole bullet point defining confirmation bias that is perhaps its most telling detail. Reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely was searching for "a single, emblematic college rape case," she said in the report, and thus appeared to have possibly had a preconceived notion that such an incident had not only definitively happened, but that something as complicated as campus sexual assault could be distilled into a singular traumatic event — a viewpoint that potentially colored her entire investigative piece, which has now been retracted.

According to Columbia's report, confirmation bias is "the tendency of people to be trapped by pre-existing assumptions and to select facts that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones." The report continues:

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.

As Erdely was searching for such a story by way of survivor, activist, and UVA employee Emily Renda, so she came across "Jackie," whose account of an alleged gang rape appeared plausible primarily based on the fact that she had been speaking out about the incident. According to Erdely, it was the consistency and details in the initial telling that bolstered Jackie's credibility. Both fact-checkers and Erdely believed her accounts were accurate, given their specificity.

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Details fell by the wayside as neither fact-checkers, editors, nor Erdely pushed for comments from the three friends who allegedly found Jackie the night of the incident. Defamatory statements allegedly made by the friends and relayed by Jackie to Erdely were never verified or commented upon by those friends, and a conversation in which Jackie stated that one of those friends, Ryan Duffin, was unwilling to talk to Rolling Stone about the night in question was found to be false.

That detail was not unearthed until after the article had been published. According to the report, there appears that Erdely allegedly chose to take Jackie's word rather than independently reach out to Duffin due to those aforementioned preconceived notions and despite the fact that basic journalistic protocol calls for reaching out to a side in which alleged defamatory statements have been made on their behalf.

For all the potential warning signs within the reporting process, many key details did not emerge until after "A Rape on Campus" was published on Nov. 19, 2014, presumably due to a lack of pursuing additional sources aside from Jackie. Erdely appears to have made no further efforts to contact Duffin nor the other friends Jackie had mentioned. The use of pseudonyms in the article only further cemented that confirmation bias, as Erdely, her editors, and the magazine's fact-checkers appeared to be comfortable in using Jackie's words rather than seeking additional sources.

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Erdely did attempt to gain comments from Associate Dean of Students Nicole Eramo as well as the fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, in question that allegedly allowed Jackie to be sexually assaulted. Limited information was provided from UVA regarding the incident, and rather than assume the reason was due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which protects students but makes it difficult to provide specific information, Erdely might have felt that the school was acting as more a blockade than a support to its students.

When Erdely contacted Phi Kappa Psi, rather than ask specific questions on the case, she simply asked if the fraternity could comment about the incident and nothing more. Jackie had claimed that two additional students were looking to file claims against the fraternity, though she was unable to connect anyone to those students, and only one had filed an anonymous claim and was never heard from again. Rather than further pursuing other sources to fill in the blanks of information, Erdely allegedly again relied on confirmation bias that reinforced her feelings that there was some type of injustice committed here.

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So, too, Jackie proved at times elusive, though her behavior of occasionally not responding to Erdely was, according to Erdely, "consistent with a victim of trauma." For nearly two weeks, Jackie stopped responding to Erdely after the reporter had attempted to verify the name of her alleged attacker. This came just one month before the story was published and was one of many instances in which Erdely attempted to gain the alleged perpetrator's name, a detail that Jackie was consistently unwilling to provide.

A week after "A Rape On Campus" hit newsstands, Erdely again revisited the naming issue and that was when "an alarm bell went off" for Erdely after Jackie was unable to properly spell the alleged perpetrator's last name. Throughout her reporting, Erdely had multiple chances to cross-check the Phi Kappa Psi roster with employment information from the campus aquatic center in which both Jackie and the alleged attacker were employed. In fact, Jackie even allegedly provided an email address from her supervisor at the aquatic center to Erdely, though it appears that the reporter failed to contact the supervisor in order to confirm the alleged perpetrator's employment there.

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While it makes sense that Erdely and Rolling Stone might put their full faith in Jackie, partially because she was consistent in the recounting of her horrific sexual assault with Erdely, it is certainly not Jackie's fault that Rolling Stone didn't do due diligence in contacting her friends, the accused, and others in an attempt to gain additional perspective and provide a balanced piece. For that error and many others, it certainly appears as if confirmation bias got in the way of bringing a well-reported story to fruition.

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