I May Have Gotten Slightly Burned This Week
A cautionary tale
Earlier this week I sent out a newsletter headlined “Journalists Are Reporting Their Colleagues To HR For Expressing Political Opinions That Make Them Feel Unsafe.” In it, I briefly told two stories, of, well, journalists reporting their colleagues to HR for expressing political opinions that made them unsafe. Here’s how the meat of what I called “Story 2” went:
At another publication, ‘Ted,’ a staffer, took ‘Rachel,’ an intern, out to lunch to be friendly, see if she was in need of any career advice, and so on. At the lunch, the subject of Baltimore’s high murder rate came up. Rachel said that she thought the most important underlying factors causing the violence in Baltimore were white supremacy and the legacy of slavery. Ted disagreed — he said that some of the blame lay with Baltimore’s heavily Democratic local government.
He believed that blaming a social pathology as complicated as murder on white supremacy and slavery was an oversimplification. Rachel responded, in Ted’s recounting, by yelling at him across the table. (Neither Ted nor Rachel is white, for what that’s worth.) Rachel subsequently complained about Ted to HR. Ted was forced to have a phone call with an HR staffer in which he was told that Rachel was “shaken up” (Ted’s summary) by the lunchtime conversation. Ted told the HR staffer that he’d like to try to reconcile with Rachel and the HR person said they’d try to facilitate that. But Ted never heard another word about the event after that. And at the time of the lunch, he’d already planned to move on to another job, which he did.
After the post went live, I heard from an editor at the publication in question who I’ll call ‘Shaun.’ He claimed that Ted had not portrayed this story entirely accurately and provided various details supporting that view. I soon got Rachel herself on the phone — she’s actually a fellow, not an intern — and she confirmed what Shaun had told me. Echoing the gist of Shaun’s account, she said the conversation with Ted at lunch had gotten pointedly personal and that Ted had made statements she found unnecessarily hostile about her own family history, her education, her level of exposure to minority communities, and so on. She also believed some of what he said crossed the line from disagreement into “outright racism,” as she put it in a followup email.
Rachel left the lunch in tears and told her editors what had happened, and they suggested that she report Ted to human resources. It was not, she claimed, about political disagreement — it was about how Ted had comported himself at lunch. And she only reported Ted after her editors suggested she do so.
I then went back to Ted. He acknowledged certain aspects of Rachel’s version but denied others. I’ve gone back and forth with both of them and everything has quickly devolved into a tangled he-said, she-said, with the two parties disagreeing about basic aspects of what did and didn’t happen. Ted, for example, claimed that Rachel specifically requested they have lunch so she could ask him about his belief that America is not, at present, white supremacist, and then complained about them having exactly the conversation she requested. Rachel flatly denied this. Ted claimed she must be misremembering.
And so on. At this point, I have no idea exactly what happened, or how I, or anyone else, would react if we all magically had access to a video of the lunch. But here’s what it comes down to: I didn’t exhibit enough due diligence in my reporting and shouldn’t have included Ted’s account in the post in the manner I did, and so I’ve removed it. The post will live on with a note at the top explaining that it has been edited heavily, with links to an archive of the original story and to this explanation. There will be no mystery about what happened — I’m not trying to sweep my mistake under the rug.
This was an unforced error, and it is driving me crazy that it happened. So, a brief Q&A for those seeking the full details is below. This is probably more information than most people want, so if you close your tab here, your key takeaway being simply that I screwed up due to a bit of sloppiness, that’s fine with me and I can’t really argue with your conclusion.
If you do want more details:
Because I had known Ted for a long time, albeit casually, and trusted him to tell the story accurately and completely, I didn’t do the usual legwork a journalist should when presenting an anonymous source’s account. In some instances, this can be complicated. But the basic rule is that it’s important to take certain precautions, because when you present such an account, you’re allowing someone to make a claim without putting their name and therefore reputation behind it. I messed up by not reaching out to Ted’s former colleagues to get their side of the story.
At the time I justified my decision to take Ted mostly at his word as follows: I didn’t want to stir up further drama between him and his former employer, given that he had been, in his account, unfairly targeted by a colleague. Plus, I wasn’t naming the publication or the intern, in which case there would have been no wriggle room whatsoever — you have to reach out for comment in those cases.
If I could get a do-over, I would have told Ted I wanted to use his story in my newsletter, but that I had to run everything by his former colleagues first (explaining to them that I wasn’t going to use anyone’s name). Either he wouldn’t have given me permission to do so, in which case I would have skipped the whole thing, or he would have granted me permission, things would have devolved into the messy he-said, she-said, and I… would have skipped the whole thing. The same outcome, either way — a better one.
Instead of doing what I should have done, I ran the language I planned on using by Ted in a few Twitter DMs, asked him some followup questions, and, once he approved everything as accurate, left things at that. This isn’t the normal way I work with anonymous sources — see, for example, my cautions and caveats and showing-my-work when I published anonymous and pseudonymous emails by people embroiled in the young-adult-fiction culture wars in this newsletter.
But because I knew Ted and, again, didn’t want to exacerbate things between him and his former employer, I took a lot of what he said at face value in a way I shouldn’t have. Which is how you risk getting burned. This doesn’t mean Ted was intentionally dishonest, as two people can experience the same lunch quite differently, but I do think that the language he approved in our DMs left out context and nuance that is clearly relevant to the situation and that he should have mentioned. At the end of the day, though, it wasn’t his job to fact-check in this manner — it was mine.
If Story 2 Was Misleading, Why Should Anyone Believe Story 1?
Story 1 was confirmed to me by multiple people at the publication in question who know what happened, including the target of the HR campaign. It’s also a bit of an open secret in some journalistic circles. For example, when Shaun, the editor at the publication in Story 2, reached out to me to contest Ted’s account, he added, “The [Bob] thing meanwhile is bonkers,” using the subject of Story 1’s real name, meaning he had heard the story independently and knew exactly who it was referring to. Plus, in that case there’s no he-said, she-said interpersonal conflict entailing interpretive fuzziness. It’s about real HR complaints that actually happened. In the aforementioned fantasy universe, finding out Story 2 was shaky wouldn’t have prevented me from simply doing a whole post on Story 1 — I’d been meaning to find a way to write about it for a long time, anyway.
Anyway, this is another reason to be careful when you’re doing journalism: Not being careful opens up the door for people to say “Well, why should we believe the other story happened? Why should we believe other stuff you write?” That’s part of the reason I’m frustrated at myself.
Has This Happened To You Before?
It has not. Or at least not in this manner. I’ve been a journalist about 13 years and believe I have a good track record. I can’t recall any other situation in which I reported something someone told me as though it were true and then discovered reason to believe what I had reported was misleading. Aside from the occasional minor correction (including in this newsletter), here are the most serious errors I am aware of in my previous published work:
-I (alongside many others) misread a study on gender dysphoria and presented it as providing weaker evidence for desistance — in this context, usually defined as someone’s dysphoria going away over time without them transitioning — than it really did. I updated the original story for New York Magazine and wrote up a lengthy explanation of what went wrong on Medium.
-One time when I was at NY Mag my initial post on an article about the mindset-theory controversy was sufficiently, well, off, that I decided to more or less rewrite it shortly after it posted, while linking to an image of the original for transparency’s sake.
On a few occasions when I misunderstood or misremembered something, I’ve also accidentally said false stuff on Twitter — when that has happened I’ve always corrected the record explicitly, while deleting the original tweet but including a screenshot of it in the correction to be transparent. I have an obligation to get stuff right and to make corrections when I fail to do so, and that obligation holds whether the medium is a published article, Twitter, or this newsletter.
Were you more credulous about Ted’s story than you should have been because of confirmation bias — that is, because it fit your theory that certain worrying trends are creeping into journalism?
Probably, yes. I had been thinking a lot about Story 1 ever since I heard about it — the idea of staffers engaging in a coordinated HR campaign against a colleague over pure political disagreement struck me as, to use what is in this case an irresistible cliché, a serious canary-in-a-coalmine moment. So there’s a chance that when I heard Ted’s story, the dumb-primate part of my brain grunted “THING B SOUNDS LIKE THING A SO THING B PROBABLY TRUE,” triggering some confirmation bias.
But when you hear a story that tickles your preexisting notions, it should make you try harder to seek out countervailing evidence before accepting it as true. I should know this better than most: I am writing a book about how one of the reasons shoddy science spreads is by telling us stuff we “already know” about the world and society, causing people to respond more credulously than they would have otherwise. And that’s part of what happened here.
This was really dumb, and what makes it dumb was how easily I could have prevented it from happening. I apologize to my readers and to Ted and Rachel and their publication.
The lead image, of me (?), is by Priscilla Du Preez via Unsplash.