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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Credibility Committee Update, Keller Response Show Progress but The New York Times Has a Long Way to Go; Time for Some 'Attaboys' From Critics

Things are definitely improving in some key areas, but a review of a response by The New York Times top editor to a recent update by the paper's Credibility Committee of its original recommendations contains evidence the outlook remains grim on other vital issues.

Among the most surprising - and thus far almost totally unnoticed - aspects of this story is the admission by executive editor Bill Keller that "even sophisticated readers of The New York Times sometimes find it hard to distinguish between news coverage and commentary in our pages." That in a nutshell is what critics across the political spectrum have said of the Times for decades.

Beyond such considerations, the update and Keller's response contain much that ought to persuade thoughtful critics - even if only pending further progress - that the people in charge of the newsroom at the nation's newspaper of record are serious about getting things right.

The Credibility Committee's update focused on a host of specific steps it recommended in the following areas:


  • A dialogue with our publics
  • Reaching out to readers; improving our use of sources
  • Unidentified sources: some next steps
  • Reducing factual errors
  • The news/opinion divide
Several aspects of the committee's preface bear comment. First, the committee noted that it had divided into five subcommittees to address the above topics. One of those subcommittees "assembled half a dozen noted journalists from outside the Times for a searching discussion of perceptions of bias or favoritism."

The five outside journalists aren't named but whoever they are, the fact the committee apparently invited only fellow MSMers to talk about "perceptions" of bias suggests both that committee members believe charges of bias are nothing more than a perceived problem and that committee members only accept other journalists as legitimate critics. Insularity clearly remains perhaps the most basic problem at the Times.

Second, the preface notes that when it began its work on the update, "the election-year shouting was still ringing in our ears" and "it was hard to resist a defensive crouch." Now that those passions have cooled, the committee thinks "explaining ourselves actively and earnestly to our various publics can only strengthen the bond between the Times and its loyal readers."

Unfortunately, both the committee's update report and Kellers' response provide abundant evidence that a defensive crouch remains too characteristic of the Times' attitude toward its critics, both those within and those outside the journalism profession.

On the Times dialogue with its readers, the language of both the committee and Keller is that of the harried defender under unjust attack. The committee recommends, for example, that "the newsroom should establish a coherent, flexible system for evaluating public attacks on our work and determining whether they require a public response." That response should be "more vigorous" when the Times is "unfairly maligned."

Similarly, Keller notes in his response that "there may have been a time when we could remain aloof and impervious in the face of criticism, but if so that time has passed. The proliferation of critics and the growing public cynicism about the news media pose a threat to our authority and credibility that cannot go unanswered."

Keller echoed the committee's terminoly in adding that "we will be more systematic in responding to attacks on our work," especially when "there is a significant or concerted impugning of something we have reported ..."

Legitimate criticism is not the same thing as "attacks," "maligning" or "concerted impugning," but the tone and frequency with which such language appears in connection with criticism of the paper suggests the Times folks mainly reject the legitimacy of critics outside the profession. As long as that attitude persists, it will be impossible to regain readers trust by, as the committee describes it, "being more open and forthcoming."

And there is this graph near the end of the committee's preface:

"We fully accept that there are those who love to hate the Times. Though there may be no dissuading them, often there is value in engaging with more open-minded critics. And beyond that debate, productive communication is certainly possible with a much larger body of people - readers and non-readers alike - whose opinions of the Times are no so fixed. We should focus our efforts on them, with the goal of making it far easier for them to see more than unanswered attacks on our ethics and professionalism."

There is a hint of the martyr about that first sentence, or at least something of a pity party. I suspect, too, that by "open-minded critics" the committee members have in mind folks like those five outside journalists they invited in to have a "searching discussion" about the "perception" of "bias." Do the committee members think all other critics are closed-minded dullards interested only in "attacks on our ethics and professionalism"?

On balance, it appears the Times folks still don't get it on the matter of having a dialogue with readers and critics, rather than delivering an old-fashioned MSM lecture on the news.

On the Times efforts to reach out to readers and improve its sourcing, there are some notable advances, but how to deal with anonymous sources remains a significant challenge. The committee recomended and Keller agreed that the Times will institute a system that allows readers to send editors and reporters emails, but without disclosing their email addresses through "dialogue boxes" that will appear with stories on NYTimes.com.

"The Times makes it harder than any other major American newspaper for readers to reach a responsible human being," the committee said. On the same issue, however, both the committee and Keller agreed that there are legitimate reasons for keeping a shield between journalists and readers. "There are valid reasons for this: An accessible address opens a reporter to spam, crude personal attacks and orchestrated campaigns that are easy to organize on the web but can be terribly time-consuming for the reporter on the receiving end.

Dialogue boxes are used by other news organizations and a good solution to a difficult problem.

The committee and Keller also agreed that Times reporters should more frequently verify quotes and facts with sources prior to publication, but only as time and prudence allow. The reluctance to open the door officially to what are often termed "read-backs" - wherein the reporter calls a source back and reads a particular quote from him or her or other relevant passages of a pending story - is understandable as well.

The problem is the source who hears himself being quoted and gets a sudden case of cold feet or who for reasons unkown to the reporter has become fearful of being identified as the source of a fact or document that is damaging to somebody else.

Even so, Keller noted that "a surprising number of staffers seem to believe that [read-backs] violate an occupational taboo." Actually, Keller observed, judicious use of read-backs are "a valuable safeguard of accuracy" that "reassures sources that you are scrupulous."

The committee and Keller also rejected the use of post-publication questionaires sent to sources and newsmakers who are quoted in the paper.

On the use of anonymous sources, the committee offered mostly broad generalizations about the importance of minimizing such sourcing. But it also made this telling observation, which could be applied with equal accuracy to virtually every major news organization in America:

"Almost every issue of the paper includes anonymously attributed information of no great moment. That material could easily be cut or with some extra effort put on the record. Many instances involve government officials saying routine things. Others have business executives, athletes or cultural figures making expendable comments about their fields. Some articles quote anonymous bystanders who happen to be interviewed at crimes scenes, sporting events, political rallies, theatrical premieres and other events. No department or section of the paper is immune."

Keller was much more specific. He reiterated the Times' official policy, which provides that anonymous sources are to be used only when they provide newsworthy, credible information that cannot be obtained any other way. "We resist granting anonymity for opinion, speculation or personal attacks," he said.

Keller also said he has tasked selected editors to develop training and orientation materials describing tactics used by Times veterans to persuade recalcitrant sources to go on the record. And he reiterated that "an editor must know the identity of any unnamed source, that editors
must press reporters to get information on the record, and that when anonymity is unavoidable, editors must press for adequate disclosure - how the sources know what they know, what motivated them to share the information and why they are entitled to anonymity."

Keller then added an important detail on the issue: Times editors must press reporters to explain in their stories using anonymous sources "not why they ask for anonymity, but why we feel they are entitled to it." I think that distinction is at the root of the proliferation of anonymous sourcing throughout the MSM in the past decade.

But then Keller says something that seems to undercut all the previous good work on the issue of anonymous sourcing: "Department heads must be prepared, in some cases, to hold back stories - even competitive stories - if the sourcing does not meet our standards."

I hope that sentence reflects inartful wording because otherwise it says the Times will use substandard sourcing in some, or a few, or perhaps many cases. If that is true, what is the point of having any standards?

Still, I believe fewer anonymous sources will appear in the pages of The New York Times in the next year if Keller and his editorial leadership ranks are serious about tightening up the application of its official policy. He offers this admittedly subjective measure of whether there is further progress:

"A year from now, I would like reporters to feel that the use of anonymous sources is not routine, but an exception, and that if the justification is not clear in the story they will be challenged."

Kellor and colleagues should assume that somebody is counting and will do the numbers in a year to see if progress has actually been made in reducing the use of anonymous sources on the Times' pages.

Mispelled names, inaccurate addresses and other errors of simply fact do much to undermine journalists' credibility. In the case of the Times, eliminating such errors comes under the same heading as detecting plagiarism before it is published.

The committee strongly encouraged establishment of "a newsroom-wide tracking system" designed "to detect patterns of errors and take action to avoid repitition." The committee also encouraged the Times newsroom to "take greater advantage of electronic tools for gathering and checking information."

For Keller, the first thing to be noted here is his amazement "that some people at this paper believe fact-checking is someone else's responsibility." This is a point that cries out for amplification and further clarification. There must be more than merely isolated examples of such people in the Times newsroom, otherwise, why mention in a public memo a problem likely better dealt with privately?

And if such an attitude is indeed more widespread, how did such an amazing situation come to be at America's "newspaper of record"? What specific instances brought Keller to his realization? Has anybody in the Times newsroom been disciplined in any way in the past two years for failing to get their facts right?

In any case, Keller says writers, copy editors, desk editors, everybody is responsible for making sure the Times gets it right every time. Perfection being impossible, he agreed with the committee's recommendation of establishing a newsroom corrections tracking system and he pledged the Times would take steps to "make it easier for readers to reach us with complaints about errors."

On the issue of plagiarism, the committee said systems like Lexis-Nexis are "not yet refined enough to allow newspapers to use databases ... to determine whether material has been plagiarized." But the Times has talked "with Lexis-Nexis, which has begun a partnership with I-Thenticate, a plagiarism software company mainly serving academia."

Curiously, Keller did not address the plagiarism issue.

Finally, on the news/opinion divide, other than encouraging appointment of an editorial team to standardize the appearance of "news analyses and other reportorial pieces that are authorized to convey voice and viewpoint," the committee offered, again, mainly broad generalization.

But like Keller's wonder that there are people in the Times' newsroom who don't think it's their job to insure accuracy, more discussion is needed about the committee's recognition of a need for distinguishing visually news analysis and viewpoint from straight news writing.

Such a distinction ought to have been obvious long ago at the nation's newspaper of record. Why must it now be clarified anew? What examples of insufficiently clarified analyses or other reportage containing viewpoints sparked the committee's observation?

And what is the connection between such questions and this intriquing paragraph from the committee: "Our news coverage needs to embrace unorthodox views and contrarian opinions and to portray lives both more radical and more conservative than those most of us experience. We need to listen carefully to colleagues who are at home in realms that are not familiar to most of us."

Perhaps the committee had in mind on this point St. Paul's admonition that speaking in tongues is only permissible when somebody is present to translate the speakers words into a familiar language.

That this point bears further discussion is borne out by Keller's observation that "even sophisticated readers of The New York Times sometimes find it hard to distinguish between news coverage and commentary in our pages." Is this not an amazing admission from the top editor of the nation's most important daily newspaper? Is it not also a concession of the fundamental premise of so much of the criticism of the Times for the past several decades?

Almost as eye-opening is the recognition by both the committee and Keller that the Times must in the latter's words make "a concerted effort to stretch beyond our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation."

He noted as examples of what such an effort should produce the recent coverage of political conservatives and religious evangelicals by Times reporters David Kirkpatrick and Jason DeParle.

I hope the many critics of the Times in the Blogosphere and in the Right media will take the time to read these two documents in detail and not simply cull statements they believe confirm their severest criticism.

And in any case, portions of what is said by the committee and Keller can legitimately be dismissed as mere rhetoric and only they can demonstrate over time the substance behind their words.

Even so, there is much here for critics to be genuinely encouraged by, enough that the time has come for folks habitually otherwise inclined ought now to offer some "attaboys" for a change.