News in a New Media Age: Even the New York Times got it wrong

by Margaret Sullivan

“I always said that if I read it in The Times, it must be right,” she said. But that faith was broken last weekend.

The media critic Jack Shafer wrote recently that, in the age of Twitter, the public had better get used to a new fact of life: News stories, especially the early reports of breaking news events, are very likely to be inaccurate.

That comment on his Reuters blog was prompted by the misinformation that circulated after the terrible shooting deaths in Newtown, Conn. “Don’t expect too much,” he advised news consumers. “You won’t be disappointed.”

To this, I offer a radical response: That’s not good enough. Or maybe it’s good enough for some news organizations and some news consumers. But it’s not good enough for The New York Times and its readers.

One of those readers, Gail G. Abrams of Little Silver, N.J., wrote to me last week: “My daughter’s godchild was one of the 6-year-olds murdered in Connecticut on Friday. We believed that The New York Times was more interested in getting it right than in getting it first. We don’t believe that anymore.”

Later, by phone, Mrs. Abrams told me that she was 75 years old and had been a Times subscriber since she was 21.

“I always said that if I read it in The Times, it must be right,” she said. But that faith was broken last weekend.

The Times may have done better than many in reporting the shootings. Top editors told me that they did emphasize caution, that they always value accuracy above speed, and that they are quick to correct errors.

But on the first day, The Times reported on its Web site that the gunman was Ryan Lanza, attributing that information to other news organizations. It was actually his brother, Adam Lanza. Mistakes don’t get much worse.

The next day, in its lead front-page article, The Times got several major facts wrong, stating without attribution that Mr. Lanza was “buzzed in” to the Sandy Hook Elementary School building by its principal, who “recognized him as the son of a colleague.”

Not so. He forced his way into the school, dressed in combat gear and carrying guns. There is still no confirmation that his mother, Nancy Lanza, ever worked at the school.

There were other errors, too — many the result of wrong information from the police. In many cases, the attribution was to unnamed law enforcement officials.

Again: Not good enough for The Times.

Are mistakes like this inevitable in the hypercompetitive age of social media?

Here’s an imperfect but instructive comparison.

On the night of the presidential election last month, The Times was notably slow to call the race for President Obama. The cautious Associated Press had done so, and so had every other major news organization. Even the Empire State Building was bathed in blue lights, but still The Times held off.

Later, I looked into why: A tightly controlled process, including a “decision desk” staffed by two veteran editors, was in place. And Jill Abramson, the executive editor, made the final call. Why? Because it is better to be slow and right — especially given The Times’s reputation as journalism’s gold standard.

The Times brings a similar discipline to its investigative work. Kelly Couturier, a Web producer for the business section, told me recently how impressed she had been to hear a ranking editor instruct another editor on a sensitive story: “Check every fact. Make sure everything is right.” She recalled thinking: “That’s The Times. That’s what we do here.”

Practices like that can fall apart quickly in the scramble to chase a major breaking news story. It is easy to see why. You can’t plan for covering a mass killing. Journalists have to react quickly. But as they do, high standards and journalistic rigor shouldn’t be on the run too.

Wendy Ruderman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her police-related reporting when she worked in Philadelphia, was one of many Times reporters on the Newtown story. She told me that the mistakes kept her up at night, and that as the police bureau chief she felt partly responsible for them. The root of the problem, she said, was at least twofold. First, authorities were under intense pressure to give out information without being sure of it themselves. Second, in The Times’s rush to keep up with the multitude of news sources, it used some information without independently confirming it or naming the authorities it came from.

In the future, she would prefer that everyone adhere to this rule: “We shouldn’t put anything in the paper without a name attached to it.” In other words, there would be no reliance on anonymous law enforcement officials.

“We should have a person on the record, and a way to verify what they’re saying,” Ms. Ruderman said. “And we would take the time to ask enough questions to feel certain.”

This would not ensure that errors were not made; that’s not possible. But it would guard against and minimize them.

“We should put in only the basic facts we definitely know and build the story from the ground up,” she said. “Where we don’t know, we can clearly state that in the story.”

Named sources. Verification. Transparency. And the willingness to cede the front of the pack. Those practices “would have put us way behind,” Ms. Ruderman said. “But our credibility is at stake.”

The Times can’t get pulled into the maelstrom of Twitter-era news. It has to stand apart from those news sources that are getting information out in a fast, piecemeal and frequently inaccurate way. That process has its own appeal and its own valuable purpose. But The Times should be its authoritative and accurate counterbalance.

Only then will it restore the faith of readers like Mrs. Abrams that if you read it in The Times, it must be true.



Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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