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New York Times storyI have written occasionally here about objectivity and humanity in reporting.

I call your attention today to an excellent piece on the topic by John Leland of the New York Times: Attached: When Reporting and Caring Are Intertwined.

The story inspires me to propose this ironclad rule of journalism ethics: It’s always OK for a journalist to change a light bulb for a source. (Read the piece; you’ll understand.)

Leland wrote at one point:

Once, when Fred started crying in the middle of an interview we were videotaping, I didn’t hug him, even though I wanted to. Some boundaries held.

I, too, have resisted the urge to hug when someone cried during an interview. Sometimes what the person says while crying or after the tears stop is an important part of the interview. But I did put my arm around a woman who was crying and embracing a huge portrait of her dead daughter during an interview about the girl’s suicide. At that point, the woman needed an arm on her shoulder and needed someone to steer her back to the couch, and I was the only person around.

I think I have otherwise refrained from initiating hugs with sources. But I have interviewed people about a lot of intimate topics. If a source wants to end such an interview with a hug, I join in the embrace.

Reporters get some of our best stories when we ask people to cross the boundaries they usually maintain around personal matters. That’s no time for the reporter to get fussy about boundaries.

Some of my earlier pieces on objectivity and humanity:

Humanity is more important and honest than objectivity for journalists

Journalists shouldn’t hide behind a mask

The heart: one of journalism’s best tools

Storytelling in journalism: No estoy muerta (I am not dead)

Journalism ethics don’t (always) require us to be assholes

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NYT sourcesThe New York Times finally has a new and (hopefully) improved process for handling stories using unnamed sources. The process is outlined in a memo from Executive Editor Dean Baquet, Deputy Executive Editor Matt Purdy and Standards Editor Phil Corbett, and was reported Tuesday by Public Editor Margaret Sullivan.

The memo outlines which editors need to sign off on different types of uses of unnamed sources. As a frequent critic of the Times’ overuse of unnamed sources, I applaud the effort to be more demanding of reporters seeking to use them. I agree with Sullivan’s assessment:

This is a sensible, moderate and necessary plan. The devil, of course, is in the enforcement. The Times often has not done an effective job of carrying out the policy it already has, one element of which states that anonymous sources may be used only as “a last resort.”

If the Times editors uphold high standards in approving use of unnamed sources, the new process will be a huge step forward, ending the frivolous and needless use of confidential sources while still leaving the Times positioned to deal with informed source who sometimes are the only way to tell important stories on such matters as national security and law enforcement. (more…)

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SullivanI’m disappointed that the New York Times screwed up again in its over-reliance on unnamed sources. But I’m pleased that this screwup finally appears to have prompted a Times examination of this biggest weakness in our nation’s most important news organization.

Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who has been a more persistent and effective critic than I of the Times’ promiscuity with unnamed sources, reported today that mistakes in the Times reporting on the visa screening of terror-attack suspect Tashfeen Malik finally drew a commitment to act:

I talked on Friday to the executive editor, Dean Baquet; to one of his chief deputies, Matt Purdy; and to the Washington editor, Bill Hamilton, who edited the article. All described what happened as deeply troubling. Mr. Baquet said that some new procedures need to be put in place, especially for dealing with anonymous sources, and he said he would begin working on that immediately.

“This was a really big mistake,” Mr. Baquet said, “and more than anything since I’ve become editor it does make me think we need to do something about how we handle anonymous sources.”

First I’ll note that Baquet visited LSU this month and addressed the use of unnamed sources in his Q&A with students and faculty after an address in the Holliday Forum.

Of course, that tweet oversimplifies what Baquet said in response to the question, but it was not a detailed response. He cited national security reporting as an area where using confidential sources is essential to the excellent reporting the Times has done through the years.

This was an important national security story, but those stories demand not only greater use of unnamed sources but greater insistence on documentation and verification from those sources and others.

I’m in the hospital and don’t have the strength to say much new about this. Sullivan covers it better than I would if I were at full speed. I’ll just quote Sullivan again (but you should read her full post), then link to previous posts about this persistent problem at the Times (followed by a late-Friday update and some Twitter response):

The Times needs to fix its overuse of unnamed government sources. And it needs to slow down the reporting and editing process, especially in the fever-pitch atmosphere surrounding a major news event. Those are procedural changes, and they are needed. But most of all, and more fundamental, the paper needs to show far more skepticism – a kind of prosecutorial scrutiny — at every level of the process.

Two front-page, anonymously sourced stories in a few months have required editors’ notes that corrected key elements – elements that were integral enough to form the basis of the headlines in both cases. That’s not acceptable for Times readers or for the paper’s credibility, which is its most precious asset.

If this isn’t a red alert, I don’t know what will be.

Previous posts on NYT use of sources

Dean Baquet needs to get mad about NY Times’ use of unnamed sources

New York Times story based on unnamed sources: 2 big corrections

New York Times frequently violates its attribution standards

Again: journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of our stories

Applause to the New York Times for effective use of an on-the-record source

Judith Miller still blames sources for her false reporting

Jonathan Landay elaborates on Judith Miller’s flawed Iraq reporting

Do I despair for the New York Times? No, but I’m often disappointed and pleased

Eric Nalder responds

About the same time that I was posting this, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Eric Nalder replied on Facebook to my post about Sullivan’s original post (I hadn’t yet shared this post there). His advice on vetting investigative stories is helpful and important as the Times reassesses its use of unnamed sources and its verification of what they tell you. With Eric’s permission, I am adding his comment to this post:

Nalder

Nalder absolutely nails the Times’ failure here. The reporters should have been demanding of the sources and the editors should have been demanding of the reporters: Show me a tweet. Show me a screen grab. If we’re reporting that our visa screening process missed her open embrace of jihad, we need to show that threat, even if it’s in a foreign language. We’re the New York Times, we can find translators.

Nalder, by the way, far surpasses my own journalistic credentials and those of the vast majority of New York Times reporters. He won Pulitzers for investigative reporting on the Exxon Valdez oil spill and on corruption in a federal housing program for Native Americans. He knows how to nail down facts on important stories.

I have cited Nalder before on his effective use of “ratcheting” to persuade reluctant sources to go on the record. It’s a technique that probably wouldn’t work on a national-security story like this, but it illustrates the sophistication of his experience and technique in this area.

If I were Dean Baquet, I might start addressing this topic by asking Nalder if he’s available to do an investigation of Times’ reporters dealings with unnamed sources and the vetting by Times reporters and editors of the information that sources provide.

Twitter responses

End notes

Margaret Sullivan: Sullivan also told Poynter today that she will complete her run as public editor when her second two-year contract expires this September. On this issue and more, she has been far and away the best public editor the Times has had (and the others were all good). We first met nearly 10 years ago when she was editor of the Buffalo News. I don’t know what her next step would be, but if I were hiring a newsroom leader, journalism dean (or endowed chair), media critic, columnist, media organization executive or almost any other journalism job, she’d be at the top of my list of people to talk to. I’ll be interested to see where she goes next and wish her well in whatever lies ahead.

My hospital stay. This is my first blog post here in 13 days. I’m not sure if that’s a record hiatus since I started this blog, but if not, I bet it’s close. My stem-cell transplant has been a rough experience, with more than a week where I could barely muster the energy for a few emails or social media posts a day, if that. But the cells are making new, healthy blood. I may be home next week, and I’ll definitely be blogging again before the end of the year.

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As LSU’s Director of Student Media, I occasionally fire off messages to student editors and station managers with suggestions that I usually expect them to ignore. They are independent and they are rightly in charge of their newsrooms, and I didn’t follow a lot of faculty advice when I was their age either.

I sent this message to the editorial board of our newspaper, the Daily Reveille, on Oct. 1:

Message to students

I just checked. I didn’t carbon anyone from the New York Times on the message. But the Times ran a front-page editorial this morning, calling for an end to “the Gun Epidemic in America.”

My students sort of followed my advice (or moved that direction on their own), running some opinions on the front page but more frequently than I suggested. That’s OK, too: The Reveille’s front page and editorials should reflect their judgment, not mine. I’m proud of their work, which has included excellent opinion pieces by columnists and the editorial board on page-one this semester, about such topics as mental health and racial discrimination at bars near campus.

As Kristen Hare’s Poynter piece that I shared with the student editors indicated, newspapers are increasingly responding to important issues by stating opinions on newsprint once reserved for “straight news”: the front page. The New York Times is following this trend, not leading it (nor am I, obviously). Hare’s piece was prompted by this Chicago Sun-Times cover: (more…)

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Dean Baquet

Dean Baquet addressing students and faculty at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.

New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet, a New Orleans native, visited LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication Monday.

In an afternoon address, the Q&A that followed and in an informal chat with the staff of the Daily Reveille, Baquet expressed excitement about changes in journalism and stressed that our mission as journalists is more important than the platforms we publish on.

These tweets from Manship School students best summarize some of his key points:

For more detail, here are tweets from Baquet’s speech (including some interaction from Twitter):

 

Pictures from Baquet’s visit

I didn’t catch all of Baquet’s visit to LSU and Baton Rouge, but these tweets show the different groups he visited with.

The Reveille and Advocate both reported on Baquet’s afternoon speech. And here’s a video of the speech:

Dean Baquet from LSU Manship School on Vimeo.

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Update: This post has been updated three times since originally posting, most recently on Sept. 3. Updates can be found in boldface.

Last week I noted that the New York Times consistently fails to meet its own standards regarding unnamed sources and linking to digital sources of content.

I invited responses from Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and other Times staffers mentioned in the post. None of them responded on the record, except an email from Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who said she “may respond later.” She had earlier told me on Facebook that she was considering another post on unnamed sources, an issue she has addressed multiple times. Yes, it did amuse me that the only other response I received on a post that dealt with anonymous sources* started with the words “off the record.”

I followed up the next day with another post on linking. I wasn’t planning a follow-up on unnamed sources, unless anyone from the Times responded.

I don’t have a lot more to say about unnamed sources today. But I must note that the Times made two embarrassing and significant corrections on its coverage of possible investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails (or rumored or speculated investigation; we don’t know, because the Times’ sources have been so wrong on this and so poorly identified).

Update: Sullivan blogged about the corrections this morning. She makes excellent points and I won’t belabor them here, except to make this one point: 

Sullivan quotes Times deputy executive editor Matt Purdy as saying, “We got it wrong because our very good sources had it wrong.”

Does that sound familiar? Where have I heard that before? From another Times staffer, actually. Remember who said, “If your sources are wrong, you are wrong”? That was Judith Miller.

I won’t elaborate here on Judith Miller, but if you’ve forgotten about how she damaged the Times’ reputation, I have several links at the end of this story. As I’ve said repeatedly, journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of our stories.

Another update: Newsweek’s Kurt Eichewald has a fascinating analysis of the Times’ errors and corrections.

We don’t try to persuade sources to go on the record or find other sources who will speak for the record as a courtesy to the curious. We do it for credibility, accuracy and accountability. Sometimes people with valuable, accurate information have valid reasons (fear of losing their jobs or because they are breaking the law by telling us, for instance). Other times, reporters are being manipulated by liars with agendas. Or sort-of honest people who don’t really know the facts are telling reporters what they think they know, but demand confidentiality to avoid accountability.

I don’t expect anyone from the Times to respond to me on this issue. But someone at the Times should reconsider whether that newsroom has grown too trusting of unreliable sources. The “senior government officials” cited didn’t deserve the Times’ trust. So why does the Times deserve ours?

Corrections on the New York Times' story on Hillary Clinton's emails.

Corrections on the New York Times’ coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails.

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