A key issue in the Columbia School of Journalism’s report on Rolling Stone‘s botched rape story is the use of pseudonyms to identify key characters in the story.
I strongly endorse this conclusion of the Columbia report:
Pseudonyms are inherently undesirable in journalism. They introduce fiction and ask readers to trust that this is the only instance in which a publication is inventing details at its discretion. Their use in this case was a crutch — it allowed the magazine to evade coming to terms with reporting gaps. Rolling Stone should consider banning them.
I made a similar point in December in my post (after the story began falling apart) about interviewing rape survivors and verifying their stories:
Your story needs to ring true. Using fictional names tells readers that it’s OK with you and your source to make something up. Readers will (and should) wonder what else you decided it was OK to make up.
In an interview with Columbia Journalism Review Editor Liz Spayd (the speaker in boldface), two authors of the report, Sheila Coronel and Steve Coll, the J-school’s dean, elaborated:
Is there ever a time when a journalist should introduce fictionalized names into their work?
Coronel: Very, very rarely. If you say the source cannot be named I don’t know that you should use a pseudonym. I believe in cases where, I think the New York Times has done this, in cases where it’s an illegal immigrant and they didn’t want that immigrant to be identified that they used a pseudonym or something close to the name.
Coll: Personally, I would start with a ban and take pleadings for the once-in-a-millenium exception, because there are almost always alternatives. Obviously if you use confidential sources to bring important information to the public then you can’t also have a policy that you will never publish less than a person’s full name when they’re the subject of your reporting. It’s a question of, do you introduce fiction, affirmative fiction, because that’s what a pseudonym is. There are always ways to protect someone’s identity. If the person’s so at risk that you believe they might be in harm’s way if you used their middle name or nickname or some other form, and you still felt it was in the public interest to write about them then, well, I still wouldn’t use a pseudonym. Just call them “the soldier” or “the officer” or “the general” or whatever form of appellation is true, but not a pseudonym.
Right. I thought there was a really good line in your report that essentially said, once you introduce fiction, it takes a real leap on the part of the reader to trust that the rest of the piece is actually true.
Coronel: In the Rolling Stone case, pseudonyms were used mainly to paper over gaps in the reporting. Of all the many reasons you might want to use pseudonyms, this one should never be considered.
I’m not sure I’d grant the once-in-a-millennium exception that Coll mentioned. I can’t imagine granting such an exception. I try to avoid saying “never,” but I think that’s when I’d agree to use a pseudonym in a serious story. (Satire is another matter; I always enjoyed Mike Royko‘s imaginary conversations with Slats Grobnik.)
In the immigration case that Coronel cited, I would use a description such as occupation or origin: “the El Salvador native,” “the farm worker,” “the hotel maid.” Many Hispanic immigrants could be identified by fairly common last names (or their mothers’ last names) such as Martinez, Rodriquez or Hernandez.
It’s important to note that the pseudonyms in the Rolling Stone story were not used for sources, but for the people that the magazine never interviewed but should have: three friends of the accuser and her alleged assailant.
“Jackie,” the primary source in the story, was identified by “a shortened version of her true first name,” a truthful way of identifying someone whose identity you want to protect.
As I said in December (and as Coll alluded to), you can get creative, without resorting to fiction, when you decide to give a source confidentiality:
In telling stories of survivors of sexual abuse, who did not want their full names used, I often persuaded them to let me identify them by their middle names. Many middle names are common, and usually only our best friends know our middle names. I have identified people by childhood nicknames. Some of the people I interviewed who had been sexually abused in their youth had legally changed their names (that tells you something profound about how damaging this crime can be to your very identity as a person; they wanted to become someone else). I was able to persuade some of them to let me identify them by their birth names (in one case by the full birth name). I disclosed that I was using a birth name or childhood nickname or middle name, and the disclosure added credibility to the story while protecting the identity of the survivor.
You can negotiate those matters with someone you interview. But if you don’t even track down a source, you don’t have those options. A strong policy against using pseudonyms would have helped push Rolling Stone to work to contact the people it didn’t want to identify.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the report was the rejection by Rolling Stone executives of the suggestion that it needed to change its standards and how it works.
If you haven’t identified and interviewed people, you can’t even use the general descriptions that Coll mentioned in the CJR interview and I mentioned in December:
If we can’t agree on a factual name to use, I’d rather use a description such as “the tall, redheaded sophomore” or “the former small-town cheerleader.” Again, you’ll need to negotiate what kind of description is acceptable to your source.
If you think you must use pseudonyms, I suggest using the names of superheroes or characters from animation: Spiderman, Little Mermaid, Bart Simpson. Those names will never make it through editing; each time you read the name, it will underscore how silly it is to use fictional names. And you’d figure out a factual way to refer to those people.
My final point in that December post seems a good place to end this one as well:
Vague is OK in reporting on sexual assault, but inaccurate is not.