The Danger of Credulity

April 6th, 2015 Comments Off on The Danger of Credulity

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Yesterday the Columbia Journalism Review (of which I used to be publisher) posted online the report by the Dean and Academic Dean of Columbia Journalism School (with help from a post-graduate assistant) into the Rolling Stone article alleging a gang rape at the campus of the University of Virginia. It is a disturbing account of basic journalistic standards set aside and warning signs ignored in pursuit of what seemed a damning story about the prevalence of sexual violence on college campuses and the factors preventing effective counter-measures.

To me, the biggest point in the report is contained in the following quote:

The problem of confirmation bias – the tendency of people to be trapped by pre-existing assumptions and to select facts that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones – is a well-established finding of social science. It seems to have been a factor here.

That is, Rolling Stone’s reporter and editorial staff were inclined to believe the allegations made by their source—the alleged victim of the attack, identified only as “Jackie” in the story—and so accepted limits on their reporting (both imposed by the source and, more disturbingly, self-imposed) that contributed to the errors in the report that led the magazine to retract the story following release of the Columbia report.

There’s an old joke in journalism about some stories being too good to check, and that sort of hopeful blindness has contributed to many recent journalistic scandals—one example is the way “60 Minutes II” investigated President George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. While some have alleged a political bias behind such matters, the fact is that mere journalistic ambition to get a great story may be an adequate (if incomplete) explanation.

But journalism is hardly the only place to fall victim to this culture of credulity. If reporters were too easily swayed by the allegations of Iraqi possession of weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the Iraq war under George W. Bush, it is in part because the Bush administration had already suspended its own critical faculties.

And this is a long-standing problem that can be found all over the world. I just finished reading a fascinating critical history of the Second World War written by the novelist Len Deighton, and he details some striking examples of the way racial and cultural prejudices misled military leaders on all sides. As Japanese planes demolished Douglas MacArthur’s air forces in the Philippines on December 8, 1941, MacArthur concluded that there must be white pilots in the planes, since they were being piloted with such skill. On the Japanese side, a far abler war leader, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, had reached the conclusion that the destruction of the bulk of the American Pacific fleet could so sap public spirit in the United States that America might make terms rather than fight back.

For those of us who care about journalism, and particularly those of us involved in educating journalists, the lesson is clear—we must take rigorous steps to teach our students to be on guard against their own biases, and to establish clear standards and procedures to insure that reporting is as rigorously conducted and tested as possible. No story is too good to check, and belief cannot substitute for evidence. When we are too easily led in the direction of our own preconceptions, the result—for journalists, presidents, generals, admirals, and all the rest of us—is error.

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