The New York Times often and flagrantly violates its own standards for attribution.
Executive Editor Dean Baquet ignored my call earlier this year for him to lose his famous temper about the Times’ casual and inexcusable promiscuity in the use of unnamed sources. I will try again (and invite him to respond), only this time I’ll include another issue of attribution: linking to digital sources.
First two disclaimers:
- I’ve written a lot about these two subjects before, both regarding journalism in general and regarding the Times. I apologize for any repetition. I will try to minimize and include links to previous posts at the end (and sprinkle them where relevant in this post).
- The Times is unquestionably, in my view, the most outstanding organization in journalism, with some of the highest standards in journalism. That’s what makes its daily disregard of its own standards in these two important areas so maddening.
I am writing about these attribution issues because they collided this week in two outstanding posts by others:
- Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept wrote a withering piece yesterday on the Times’ “journalistic malpractice of uncritically parroting the self-serving claims of anonymous officials.” (He also skewers other journalists for re-parroting the claims as “Proven Truth” because they come from the Times). I won’t go on at length about Greenwald’s piece, except to highly recommend that you read it. The headline sums it up well, to the Times’ shame: “The Spirit of Judy Miller Is Alive and Well at the NYT and It Does Great Damage.”
- Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan blogged today about the Times’ inconsistent use of relevant links to its digital sources, understating, “routine linking is not quite there yet.” Kind of like a driver heading from Baton Rouge to New York is not quite there yet when you hit the Mississippi line. Again, I suggest reading Sullivan’s piece and will not go into it at length here. She’s right, but she didn’t pound the Times hard enough on this topic. I will.
Greenwald dissects a particularly egregious Times story by Eric Schmitt and Ben Hubbard based on a source who was absolutely lying about the impact of the Edward Snowden leaks about electronic surveillance by the National Security Administration (first reported by Greenwald, but also reported extensively by the Times). Get the details from Greenwald, but here are my points about raising the Times’ standards (and practices, because it doesn’t even follow the standards) above the Judith Miller level:
- Sources request confidentiality for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they fear for their jobs or their safety. Much of the time it is because they are lying, or not confident about their information or at the least don’t want to be held accountable for information that might not be true.
- The essence of good journalism is verification. That’s true if a source who should know tells you something on the record (remember the old journalism cliché about Mom telling you she loves you). It’s especially true if a source tells you something he or she won’t stand behind. Much of an interview with a source requesting confidentiality should be about how you can get documentation of the source’s claims, or find other sources (who may go on the record) to verify the claim. As Greenwald notes, the NSA quote would have been easy to refute.
- Sources who demand confidentiality often want to spread information or opinions (and opinions should never be published without names). If reporters were more demanding of sources requesting confidentiality, those sources seeking a mouthpiece might be more willing to speak on the record. I’m sure if the Times suddenly started using confidentiality only as a “last resort” (that’s the Times’ policy), it might have a rough transition where it missed a few stories or had to work harder for them or had to publish stories with fewer bullshit quotes. But I’m confident the Times would still do great journalism and still get most of the important stories that it does with its current promiscuous practice. The Times would improve. Greatly.
Sullivan has called the Times out for its failure to uphold its own standard on naming sources and has a running feature called AnonyWatch, citing examples of unjustified use of unnamed sources. Baquet told Sullivan he would address the issue. If he has, his staff has not responded well.
She tells me on Facebook that she is considering writing about the Greenwald piece. I will update with a link (of course) and perhaps some quotes if she does.
I just counted the tweets today from @NYTAnon, “a bot that tweets New York Times articles citing sources on condition of anonymity.” Times stories had triggered 23 tweets today by 11:30 a.m. Eastern time. You need to make a reservation well in advance if you want to stay at the New York Times Last Resort. That is one busy hotel.
— NYT Anonymous (@NYTAnon) July 22, 2015
I noted last year how the Times’ refusal to require links to digital sources caused an embarrassing error. After Patrick LaForge, the Times’ Editor for News Presentation, responded noting that links are encouraged, I documented how inconsistently they are used. And then, to my surprise, LaForge and Philip B. Corbett, the Times’ Standards Editor, sided with me and called for use of relevant links in stories. They treated it as a matter of style, rather than ethics, but I applauded it as progress.
Now I’m calling for more progress. Links to digital sources are a matter of journalism ethics and the Times should recognize the ethical value and link accordingly.
Sullivan cites Randall Kennedy’s review of Go Set a Watchman, which mentioned a specific Legal Times article and drew material from a 1992 Times story without linking to either.
Sullivan quoted a weak explanation from Times Book Review Editor Pamela Paul: “We don’t always link to other stories cited in a review as a matter of course — it’s more of an added benefit. But that’s an editorial decision, not an ethical one.”
Bullshit. Attribution has always been a matter of journalism ethics. That’s why it matters whether we identify our sources. Links are the best way to identify the sources we don’t promise not to name. The Times needs to get past the notion that links are a matter of courtesy to readers or to other journalists. Not that giving readers an “added benefit” is a bad idea when you’re charging for your product, but links are the most ethical way to identify digital sources in digital stories.
Don’t take my word that linking is a matter of ethics. A Times reader cited by Sullivan saw this as a matter of plagiarism. If your readers are questioning your ethics, perhaps you should reconsider your standards. Or just follow the standards you’ve already set.
The Times needs to do a better job of identifying it sources: Naming the people that reporters interview and linking to stories and documents that reporters read.
Endnote 1: I might agree with the Times’ decision not to link to the Gawker piece that resulted in top editors’ resignations this week, if they had explained the decision. I haven’t linked to the piece here for the same reason, explained more in Sullivan’s post.
At least in the Gawker case there’s an argument to be made against linking. The bigger story is that links are rare on almost every newspaper site, a huge missed opportunity. I am guessing that’s because many articles go straight from a print-oriented newsroom front-end system to a web site, meaning that adding a link would take a minute. As another reader of this article commented, links to court decisions should be routine. In fact, they should be routine on all sorts of subjects. A Google executive pointed out to me in the early days that every newspaper story should have “footnotes.” I humored him by saying that journalists just don’t do footnotes. Of course, it turns out that he was right, that links can add to news articles the kind of credibility that footnotes add to scholarly texts.
I would add that links are better than footnotes, because they take you right to the source, to see whether the story quoted accurately and in context, or to read or see greater context and depth.
Endnote 2: Did I steal that “busy hotel” line? Sometimes when I write a line that I think is clever, I wonder if I heard or read it somewhere else. A Google search didn’t show up earlier uses (a helpful technique for avoiding inadvertent plagiarism), so I’m claiming it. Please send a link if it’s not original, and I’ll credit.
Endnote 3: I will email Baquet, Sullivan and others mentioned in this piece (might tweet some of them, if I don’t have email addresses), inviting them to respond. I will add their responses, if they do. Update: No one has responded on the record. Sullivan said she “may respond later.”