So you want to be a nonfiction writer. You think you’d like to be the next John McPhee, flying into the national consciousness astride a copy of The New Yorker. Or maybe you think you want to be a great investigative journalist, to see your byline on the cover of The Rolling Stone.
In case you’ve had your head under a bucket for the past week: the latest journalistic scandal involves an investigative report in Rolling Stone that accused seven young men of committing a brutal rape during a drunken fraternity party at the University of Virginia. A great flap arose — the story quickly spread nationwide and around the globe, aided and abetted by the present widespread concern over sexual harassment and assault.
The source for this story was an unnamed young woman, discreetly given a pseudonym (“Jackie”) and otherwise left unidentified. At the woman’s request, the reporter, Sabrina Erdely, never attempted to contact any of the alleged offenders. People “Jackie” claimed as witnesses were not named, nor (evidently) did Erdely speak with them. In the ensuing uproar, the university suspended all fraternity and sorority activities, and the university came under intense federal scrutiny for its policies.
As it develops, it’s highly unlikely “Jackie” was attacked in the Phi Kappa Psi house on the night of the supposed party, because no party took place at Phi Kappa Psi that night. Reporting at Slate, Atlantic writer Hanna Rosin reveals that the fraternity did not host a party on the evening of September 28, 2012, and that “Drew,” who allegedly took her to the party and joined in the assault, told a Washington Post reporter that he had never met “Jackie” — a statement that, if untrue, would be easy to disprove within the gossipy community that is a college campus.
This is very, VERY serious. You can see, even on the surface, the harm caused by inaccurate, careless reporting. Evidently Ms. Erdely was misled by a source who deliberately perpetrated a hoax. However, she — Erdely — made that possible by failing to do her job properly.
Whenever you do any kind of nonfiction writing, even if it’s reporting on a meeting of the town garden club, a single, overriding imperative dictates your actions:
Every time you encounter a fact that is in any way controversial, questionable, incendiary, or even just mildly odd, you MUST follow up on it by contacting all of the people involved and asking for comment.
THIS IS NOT AN OPTION.
People dispense factoids to reporters all the time. Some of the information you get from sources you think are reliable is true. Some of it, alas, is not: it’s either mistaken or an outrlght lie.
I have had both of these happen to me in the course of a 15-year career. It’s not as easy to identify accuracy as you think. And, given an apparently reliable source, it’s unnervingly easy to get complacent.
Your job, as a writer of nonfiction, is to get the facts right. It means your job is always to question authority!
There’s no leeway in that.
Yes, I know that one school of thought teaches undergraduate scribblers that “creative nonfiction,” also known as “literary journalism,” allows one to tweak the facts to fit the “plot,” “theme,” and characterization one is playing with. But, my friends, THAT SCHOOL OF THOUGHT IS DEAD WRONG.
There is never, EVER a time that you are allowed to tweak the facts, to get the facts wrong, to withhold some facts to create an impression you wish to inflict on your readers, to rearrange facts, or to invent facts.
It’s a firing offense to play fast and loose with the facts in pursuit of a lively story. I happen to know a reporter who was fired from The Arizona Republic for exactly that cause. And yes: he went on to teach “creative nonfiction” at the local university, where he persuaded students and at least one of his colleagues that adjusting facts was part of the technique of writing an entertaining story.
If anyone ever tells you this practice is acceptable, run away.
A journalist’s pen (or keyboard) is enormously powerful. You hold in your fingers the ability to destroy lives, to drive companies out of business, and to bring down governments. And so you are called upon to abide by ethical demands that far exceed the standard applied to most mere mortals.
Consider the potential harm the University of Virginia story can do:
- You may be sure that by now everyone on that campus knows the names of the seven alleged rapists. Their reputations are permanently compromised. Some will probably leave the university. But whatever they do, they may never outrun the calumny: their future careers may affected by what is evidently an untruth.
- The university’s reputation is compromised and placed under a cloud. Would you send your daughter there? Darned if I would!
- The fraternity’s reputation, already a bit suspect, is further compromised. Would you let your son pledge this outfit? My kid would be paying his own way through school if he tried a stunt like that.
- Rolling Stone‘s reputation is hopelessly compromised. If you ever believed anything that rag published, will you believe anything they publish in the future?
- Rolling Stone is now liable for an enormous lawsuit. The claims that were published, because they were false, are libelous. While a reporter’s duty is to check facts and confirm the truth of negative reports, the final responsibility to protect against libel rests with the editor. Because the reporter did not bother to track down the accused perps and ask for their side of the story — or even to confirm that a party actually occurred — the first thing a plaintiff’s lawyer is going to do is claim the story was concocted out of malice. And that is very much, very expensively a matter of libel. So, Rolling Stone is at risk of financial penalties that will be huge. Erdely, depending on her contract and whether she is an employee or a freelancer for Rolling Stone, may also be separately liable for huge claims. Every one of those seven guys can bring separate suits, and so can the fraternity itself. We are talking more dollars than the human mind can conceive…
So, how can you protect yourself, as a reporter, from being taken in as Ms. Erdely apparently was? No reporter is 100% safe from our own errors and others’ deception. However, you can develop a few habits that will help:
- Always confirm fact. Everything a source tells you should be double-checked through your own research (and I do not mean Wikipedia).
- When a claim is made about a person, call that person and ask for comment. If the person will not return calls or emails or accept visits, state that in your article: “Boxankle did not return calls or answer the door to a reporter from Rolling Stone.”
- When a claim is made about a company or an agency, call the PR people or someone in authority at the company or agency and ask for comment. Again, if they refuse to speak to you, explicitly state who you tried to contact, how you tried to contact them, and that they would not speak to you or they declined to comment.
- RECORD EVERY INTERVIEW. If you write from your handwritten notes, listen to the interview to be sure your notes are correct.
- KEEP EVERY RECORDED INTERVIEW for at least six months. That is EVERY interview, even those feeding some fluffy cheery little piece of froth. If anything even faintly controversial or technical is said, keep the interview permanently.
- Unless your publication explicitly prohibits it, run the copy past people you interviewed and ask them to check it for accuracy. Do not accept editorial corrections; tell them you are asking only for confirmation of accuracy.
- Never rely on an editor to check facts. Some publications do not hire fact-checkers.
All of these things are part of your job.