There’s a scene in Evelyn Waugh’s scathing journalism send-up “Scoop” where Wenlock Jakes, the world-beating American reporter (based on John Gunther of the old Chicago Daily News), is sent to the Balkans to write about a war. Jakes sleeps through his train stop, but when he walks off the train into a peaceful capital he nonetheless conjures stories of conflict so convincing that war soon breaks out in the nation he’s entered.
Jakes’ fake war gives us a perfect send-up of journalistic confirmation bias, the process by which people choose only to see evidence that affirms their current point of view, ignoring anything that might contradict it. Journalists are supposed to see the real story and tell it. But sometimes we want to believe our own stories badly enough that we make them true, regardless of the evidence in front of us.
That’s what seems to have happened at SBNation when it published, then pulled, a story about Daniel Holtzclaw, the failed football player turned serial rapist. This piece, archived here, is the latest black eye for investigative narratives, following the “A Rape on Campus” debacle at Rolling Stone in November 2014 and the widely dismissed March 2014 Newsweek story on Satoshi Nakamoto, alleged creator of Bitcoin (Newsweek continues to stand by its story). This wave of stories has led The Awl co-founder Alex Balk to declare “most long form is bad,” with long meaning anything longer than the sentence “Most long form is bad.”
First, the obvious: There’s plenty of good long form out there. Here are three recent pieces we’ve admired:
And yet we are seeing a string of stories that failed. Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” sparked a 12,644-word report on what went wrong. SBNation shut down SBNation Longform and fired its editor, Glenn Stout. It called the Holtzclaw story “a complete failure.” In fact, the first few paragraphs could have led to something interesting. The piece tried to ask the question “Serial” asks in season 1, the question at the core of “In Cold Blood,” a question Hannah Arendt might have appreciated: How does someone so mundane commit heinous acts?
Paradox can fascinate. But SBNation’s editors, or at least one editor with a lot of sway, seem to have been so beguiled by the potential for paradox that they failed to recognize they had no pay-off.
Something clearly went wrong, something that seems inexplicable to those outside the process, and maybe those within it. As press critic Jay Rosen said this week, by pulling the story, the editors at SB Nation were saying, “Hey, we temporarily lost our minds.” Rosen called on Vox to make its internal investigation public, in part so other journalists (and their audiences) can figure out just how this train wrecked and avoid repeating it.
He’s hoping a lesson will emerge. But there aren’t lessons in temporary insanity. There might, however, be one in the pattern of failures we’re seeing. Both the Rolling Stone story and the SBNation story failed a basic journalistic sniff test. In Rolling Stone’s case, as was documented, it was not checking out the basic facts—asking others who were there just what happened, largely out of fear that the story might disappear. In SBNation’s case, the lesson is remembering that stories need to answer the questions they raise, with something other than “I can’t believe it happened.”
Writers should be the ones asking these questions first, absolutely. But when writers get lost in their big picture, or in their details, or in their heads, and start fitting their reporting into their preconceived idea of the story, that’s when editors need to say, “That’s not the story.” And sometimes, they need to say, “That’s not a story at all.”
So what to do when editors share the same confirmation bias about a story as the writer?
I had a tennis coach who used to tell me that when my game was struggling, strip the fancy stuff out and get back to the fundamentals. Long form editors need to do the same thing. A good narrative generally resolves a problem people care about, for a person people care about. If it doesn’t resolve the problem, or if we don’t find a reason to care about the person, an editor has to ask the question, “Why are we doing this story?”
In 2010, Kathryn Schulz, winner of this year’s National Magazine Award in feature writing, and author of the book “Being Wrong,” wrote an essay in Time outlining some of the things journalists have gotten wrong, and their consequences, like the war in Iraq or preventing timely relief after Hurricane Katrina. She advocates some simple things we can do to avoid publishing wrong-headed things.
A checklist is one. In the Holtzclaw story’s case, some of the checks might have included did you interview alleged victims? Did you talk to psychologists about personality disorders? Does this story actually answer the “how” question it raises?
Schulz also says journalists have to stop and spread some skepticism sauce around.
Confirmation bias presents an obstinate thing to overcome. Ask anyone who writes about climate change. Little things can actually help more than big ones. Yes, writers bridle at challenges to their authority, and so do editors. In the end, though, confirmation bias can cause us to want our stories to be the truth, rather than reflect it. Given the consequences, a few basic questions are well worth asking.