The last time I thought about Rob Sgobbo — before he was caught fabricating characters and quotes in a piece he wrote for the Village Voice this week — was on the day we both graduated from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism last year. Sgobbo was bounding up the stage at the end-of-the-year awards ceremony after winning an award for his education reporting. I didn't, and don't, know Sgobbo personally — I know him mostly as that friendly guy in the student lounge who always seem to dress really well — but I remember thinking at the moment, "I bet he'll go far."
I'll explain: There are two types of people who do especially well in journalism school. The first are the good reporters and/or writers, the ones who always seem to turn in the best stories time and time again. The ones whose work professors always praise as examples for the rest of the class to emulate. The second are the personalities, the popular kids who amass friends, the ones everyone seems to like. If you know journalists at all, you know it's rare to find someone who falls into both categories. There are a lot of socially-awkward, surly reporters who do great work; and there are a lot of happy, well-liked journalists who produce mediocre stuff.
On that cold, rainy day in May, there was no doubt Sgobbo fell into both categories. As he climbed the stage at the award ceremony — something only the best student-reporters got to do — a large crowd cheered him on. The guy had obviously made a lot of friends.
All of which makes the recent news so much more confusing. Sgobbo, who had been working as an intern for the New York Daily News, wrote a freelance piece for the Village Voice examining the rise of for-profit colleges. In it, he told the story of Tamicka Bourges, a woman we now know does not exist, who amassed a heavy debt load while attending a for-profit business school. In addition to creating Bourges, Sgobbo fabricated a spokesperson for the U.S. Government Accountability Office and made up quotes from the school's real-life spokesperson.
According to this report in the Business Insider, a few of my fellow classmates have speculated in the media that "the pressure was what got Sgobbo." I doubt that that was the case. I've worked in the "real world" as a journalist for five years and was a student for one, and I can attest that I have never felt more pressure to get so much done so quickly than when I was in school. Stress is one thing journalism school does well.
My guess is that Sgobbo is as confounded about his actions today as the rest of us are. Sometimes people do things — and, yes, journalists are people, too — we know are wrong, things we understand will catch up to us later, even if we can't admit it at the time. That doesn't excuse what Sgobbo did, and he has, and will continue, to pay the price for his actions. But I bet that even as everyone piles their well-deserved scorn upon him, in the end, no one will be harder on Sgobbo than Sgobbo himself.