The Washington Post’s “Storyline” project has posted a bruising editor’s note on a story about black men and HIV:
Editor’s note: Several passages have been removed from this story because the source of those passages, Mickyel Bradford, has admitted to fabricating them. The passages include descriptions of a lunch in Bradford’s town and a ball that Bradford claimed he attended with a man identified as Seth. Bradford now confirms that neither of those events occurred as described. Additionally, Bradford admits the two men never discussed getting tested for HIV. All passages concerning the two men have been removed.
As laid out in its initial posting, “Storyline” hovers where people and policy mingle: “We care about policy as experienced by people across America. About the problems in people’s lives that demand a shift from government policymakers and about the way policies from Washington are shifting how people live.”
Mickyel Bradford was one of the people upon whom “Storyline” reporter Jeff Guo had relied to tell the human dimension of his story. The goal was to shed light on something of a conundrum: Why do gay black men have such high rates of HIV even though they practice safe sex? As the story notes of the preliminary results in an Atlanta study, “Among black gay men, 43 percent were HIV positive, compared to 13 percent of white gay men, even though the black gay men had fewer sex partners and less unprotected sex.”
The sections of the piece that have been retracted and removed are well written and provide dimension to the story. If only they had held up, that is. Jim Tankersley, the editor of “Storyline,” tells the Erik Wemple Blog that Bradford’s story unraveled quickly. A love interest of Bradford’s signaled to The Post that certain aspects of the story hadn’t happened as presented, at which point Guo contacted Bradford. “He immediately admitted that he had fabricated a few parts of the story,” says Tankersley, who responded immediately to a request for comment.
A 2,000-word chunk of the story fell away with the revelations. One of the factors that makes the retracted material compelling reading is its fly-on-the-wall narrative style. The interactions of Bradford and Seth, for instance, are described in the present tense — how they meet up in a parking lot at 2 a.m. after the ball, for instance, and how there’s a “feeling that there’s so much to talk about that nothing can be talked about.” It goes on to narrate a heart-warming scene in which Seth flashes a “goofy smile” as they’re trading the results of their HIV tests. “Bradford reaches for his keys, and feels his testing slip in his pocket. He fishes out the crumpled piece of paper and thrusts it in Seth’s direction.”
It all bears an in-the-moment feel.
Not only wasn’t Guo present to witness the proceedings, the proceedings didn’t even exist in the first place. “Bradford depicted those scenes in a way that was not true,” says Tankersley. Given the use of the present tense, however, readers might have supposed that Guo was right there, witnessing the interactions between the two men.
“Storyline” isn’t the first outlet to piece together past events through interviews and then cast them in the omniscience of a present-tense narrative, yet its rough experience with a highly unreliable narrator underscores the perils of this practice.