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The Times resists correcting the arena setbacks error

This is the first of three articles (second, third) on "Atlantic Yards corrections fatigue."

When, last November 24, the New York Times published the scoop (first online November 21) that the Atlantic Yards arena would be only 20 feet from the street, it essentially corrected a previous article in which it had estimated--and seemed to declare more definitively--that the arena would be at least 75 feet from the street.

No official correction was published, however. Given the Times's policy, a correction should be in order, I thought. I requested one of the Times on January 2 and soon got a response saying no, given that the Times used "the best available data."

However, as my response below indicates, the Times misinterpreted available plans, thus failing to use "best available data."

My response was ignored. It's another example of "Atlantic Yards corrections fatigue," which I defined as "the disturbing realization that we too often make errors in covering Atlantic Yards."

Initial letter

I wrote: On Nov. 7, the Times reported, in a Metro article headlined "Security Study Urged for Atlantic Yards",
"Plans for the Brooklyn arena, though preliminary, seem to show it set back farther from the street than the Newark arena, the Prudential Center. The Prudential Center is about 25 feet from both Edison Place and Mulberry Street in downtown Newark, while renderings of Atlantic Yards show the arena about 75 feet back from Atlantic Avenue and about 150 feet from Flatbush Avenue."

On Nov. 24, the Times essentially corrected that previous article, in a Metro article headlined A Brooklyn Arena and the Street: What’s the Right Distance?:
"This month, a spokesman for Forest City Ratner, in response to inquiries from The New York Times, directed a reporter to a rough site diagram. The reporter multiplied the distances from arena to street by the scale of the plan and determined that the diagram showed the arena set back about 75 feet from Atlantic Avenue and 150 feet from Flatbush Avenue.
After this calculation was published in The Times on Nov. 8, Atlantic Yards watchdogs said that it was not realistic and that the arena was going to be much closer to the street, citing architect’s renderings and language in plan documents...
On Wednesday, a spokesman for Forest City, Loren Riegelhaupt, offered an updated response to a reporter’s inquiries: At its closest point to the street, the arena will be set back 20 feet from both Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues."

The Times's Ethical Journalism handbook states, "The Times treats its readers as fairly and openly as possible. In print and online, we tell our readers the complete, unvarnished truth as best we can learn it. It is our policy to correct our errors, large and small, as soon as we become aware of them."

In this case, the reporting/editing staff of the Times initially erred in calculating that the arena would be 75 feet from the street. While the follow-up report added valuable clarity to the record, the original error was not officially acknowledged. Without the publication of a correction to the earlier article (and thus the attachment of a correction to that article), those who find only the earlier article will be misled.


Times response

Karin Roberts, Assistant to the Metropolitan Editor, responded:

Please take another look at the language used in the Nov. 7 story (my emphasis in boldface): "Plans for the Brooklyn arena, though preliminary, seem to show it set back farther from the street than the Newark arena, the Prudential Center."

The reporter based his initial calculations on the best available data at the time, and it was written this way precisely to avoid having to publish a correction. I'm sure that as a journalist yourself, you are familiar with the common practice of "hedging" to avoid stating something as fact when the truth cannot be determined before deadline.

I think our readers are intelligent enough to realize that the sentence quoted above is absolutely not saying that the Brooklyn arena would definitely be set back farther on the street than the Newark arena. It is saying that it "seems" to be, based on a "preliminary" plan.

In the follow-up article, the reporter explained more fully how he arrived at that number, reported the doubts of Atlantic Yards critics, then included an updated figure from a Forest City spokesman. I believe we have been sufficiently forthcoming and transparent on the matter of the setback distance, and are confident that no reasonable reader could be misled by the earlier article.

For these reasons, we are not publishing a correction. I am sorry if this decision displeases you, but it is final.


My response

I responded:
Thanks for your reply. I would strongly encourage you to reconsider your decision, based on the clear evidence set out below.

While plans may be "preliminary" in the sense that they may change when/if the arena is built, there was no change in the plans between the publication of the two articles at issue.

Rather, there was a change in the interpretation of the plans, and, unfortunately, a failure to use best available data, despite your assertion below.

For the first article, the reporter, using an imprecise document provided by the developer, misinterpreted the plans. (He was not helped by the apparent unwillingness of anyone in an official capacity to provide precise numbers.)

The reporter estimated the arena was 75 feet from the street by calculating the distance from the arena oval to the street. On first impression, that seems reasonable; the space shaded green does seem to be a "moat" between the arena and the street. However, that was an error.

The space shaded green is actually rooftop green space, which extends close to the street rather than rings the arena. The rooftop green space is more precisely delineated in this Empire State Development Corporation document/graphic from the Final Environmental Impact Statement issued in November 2006.
That was the best available data.

Not that easy

Note that I, and others when writing/commenting about the setbacks issue, had not initially used the graphic above. On November 8, I used a graphic without the shading that indicated the roof. I published the above graphic on November 13, though it been available for a year.

But that certainly was enough time for the Times to clarify the "best available data" assertion in its November 21 and November 24 articles that did not quite acknowledge errors.

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