Wednesday, April 12, 2006

A stingy correction on the Times's buyouts story

In the New York Times's Correction section today:
An article on Monday about Brooklyn residents who accepted buyouts to move and make way for the Atlantic Yards development project misstated the given name of the former president of the condominium board at 636 Pacific Street, a building on the project site. He is Matt Klein, not Mark.

I also pointed out that a caption in the article stated: "Mark Drury, 25, a social worker, had to move out of his rental apartment on Dean Street because of the project, which he opposed." That's incorrect--the article quotes him as saying he's been opposed to Forest City Ratner's project from the start. The caption should have said: "which he opposes."

No correction was made, and that would seem to fall into the category of easily corrected, cut-and-dried errors.

Of course the article raised larger questions of interpretation.

Was it fair to say that "The company also paid moving costs and broker's fees for those tenants and covered any increase in rent for transitional housing" when now the company is offering only three years of such transitional supplements--and those tenants likely would not move into the new development by then?

Was it fair to contrast the fact that some people doubled their money after "after owning [their properties] for only a couple of years" with statistics that said the median apartment price in their neighborhood increased by about 36 percent in one year? The appropriate comparison would be two years--or some caveat should've been offered.

Was it fair to point out that, "[f]or this article, the company agreed to waive contractual restrictions limiting what those who accepted buyouts could say," without acknowledging the overall effect of Forest City Ratner's gag order strategy?

As former New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent wrote (It's Good to Be Objective. It's Even Better to Be Right., 11/14/04), "Fairness requires the consideration of all sides of an issue; it doesn't require the uncritical reporting of any. Yet even the best reporters will sometimes display a disappointing reluctance to set things straight."

The Executive Editor's take

Executive Editor Bill Keller this week has been answering selected questions in the Talk to the Newsroom. Below is one exchange relevant to the above discussion, and I've bolded what I think is the key point of dispute.

Keeping Opinions Out of News Articles

Q. Every choice of words, every selected quote, every decision on what to put it and what to leave out in a news article implies an editorial decision on the part of the author. How much leeway do New York Times writers have to express their "editorial" opinion in their news stories, and how much does management exert its influence in aligning stories to a particular viewpoint?
-- Paul Ulrich, Hong Kong

A. Despite what you hear from the clamorous partisans of the left and right, reporters have no license to insinuate their politics or ideology into news stories. And the only direction they are supposed to receive from management in this regard is a conscientious effort to keep our coverage impartial. That does not necessarily mean equal time for all points of view on every issue, which would be absurd. It means that our underlying mission is not to tell readers what we think, or what they should think, but to give them sufficient information to make up their own minds. (Emphasis added)

We encourage reporters to provide analysis and context, which is not the same thing as opinion. Thus if the Supreme Court rules on a big case, we invite our Supreme Court reporter to tell us whether this represents a shift in precedent, and whether any of the justices seems to have altered their views from previous cases, and how the decision might affect the lives of citizens. We do not invite her to tell us whether the decision is good or bad.

Now, there are critics who will point out that we do not always live up to this high-minded standard, and they are right. Newspapers are written and edited by humans. We get things wrong. There are some critics who propose that, because pure objectivity is elusive, the press should give up any pretense of impartiality, that individual reporters should declare their views and write polemically. To me, that is like saying that because much of our children's future is ordained by genetics, we should abandon the business of being parents. Impartial journalism, like child-rearing, is an aspiration, but it is a worthy one. And, unlike your children, a daily newspaper affords you the chance to start all over the next day, and this time get it right.

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