Thursday, July 09, 2009

Journalism of verification? Times won't back down from claim that there will "soon be a Barclays Center"

The New York Times won't correct errors in two articles that contained sloppy unequivocal statements that the Barclays Center will be built.

It's making me wonder whether, when it comes to Atlantic Yards, the New York Times really believes in, as Executive Editor Bill Keller says, "the journalism of verification."

The naming rights article

A June 24 article on naming rights for the Atlantic Avenue/Pacific Street subway station stated:
There will, however, soon be a Barclays Center, the sports arena planned as the focal point of the Atlantic Yards project, and the developer, Forest City Ratner, has agreed to pay the transportation authority $200,000 a year for the next 20 years to rename one of the oldest and busiest stations in the borough.

I wrote a note to the Times:
There may soon be a Barclays Center. And certainly the MTA's passage of the deal today with Forest City Ratner, coupled with the Empire State Development Corporation's preliminary approval Tuesday of a new Atlantic Yards plan, make it more likely than before.

However, when the Atlantic Yards arena was announced in 2003, it was supposed to open in 2006. Every year the goalposts move. A little skepticism--or at least a little hedging--is in order. Especially since Forest City Ratner is the NYT Co's business partner.


Error recurs

No correction was printed and, five days later, in a roundup article June 29 on arenas, the Times reported:
Five major complexes — four existing and one planned — will soon be slugging it out within an area 30 miles wide.

...By the time the arena in Brooklyn, which will be called Barclays Center, is built, there will be a total of nearly 100,000 seats to fill, 365 days a year.


Later in the article, the Times hedged a bit more:
the proposed Barclays Center in Brooklyn is positioned to be a rival of the Garden and the Nassau Coliseum.

So this article contains three mentions, one with a very mixed caveat ("one planned... will soon be slugging it out") and one with more of a caveat ("the proposed Barclays Center").

But one mention was unequivocal and it should have left room for doubt. I'd suggest a revision:
Should the arena in Brooklyn, which would be called Barclays Center, be built, there would be a total of nearly 100,000 seats to fill, 365 days a year.

Reminding the Times

I reminded the Times that its boilerplate response to a correction request now promises:
If we decide that a correction is not necessary, an editor will be in touch to explain our reasons.

The Times's response

Senior Editor Greg Brock responded:
We have been very responsive to your queries in the past and have run corrections when appropriate. I do not think this rises to the level of a correction. I realize you monitor every word in these articles because you have your own perspective. But at some point, we have to use common sense on these points. I am sure you will not agree: but I think this is splitting hairs and not worthy of a correction.

My rebuttal

Well, putting aside Brock's unnecessary snark, he might have a case if I'd complained only about the second article. A reader of the entire text--despite an awkward and misleading sentence--should have gotten the message that the Barclays Center was not certain.

But there was no such equivocation in the first article.

Let's look at the sentence again:
There will, however, soon be a Barclays Center, the sports arena planned as the focal point of the Atlantic Yards project.

In this sentence, I read "planned" as simply referring to the intention that it serve as the focal point, not indicating any doubt that it would be built.

Let's try a thought experiment. What if the Times were to report today:
There will, however, soon be a nuclear war, a tactic planned as the focal point of North Korean foreign policy

For Mayor Bloomberg, there will, however, soon be a third term, a period planned as the focal point for his sustainability initiatives


These would not pass muster with the Times, I am sure, because they are not certain.

Despite Brock's claim that I "monitor every word in these articles because [I] have [my] own perspective," it's much less complicated. I just don't think the Times should mislead its readers.

I have no reason to believe there was any intent in the newsroom to boost Forest City Ratner. The reporters and editors were just sloppy and, in this case, unwilling to admit it. But that sloppiness has consequences.

Errors and imprecisions

At the very least, if the Times didn't want to admit error, it could have used the phrase "referred imprecisely," as it often does (see examples 1, 2, 3).

Brock in October 2007 told an interviewer:
I don’t know if you read our corrections much, but we often say we referred “imprecisely” to something, which means that we weren’t 100 percent wrong.

Keller's standards

Keller famously praised the Times for practicing:
A journalism of verification," rather than of "assertion," and maintaining an "agnosticism" as to where any story may lead.

Not often enough.

2 comments:

  1. did you hear about this?

    http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2009/07/05/magazine/20090705-gilded-slideshow_index.html

    it was discovered here:

    http://www.metafilter.com/83061/Ruins-of-the-Second-Gilded-Age

    not really about Atlantic Yards, but seems pertinent.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I guess the "New York Times Age of Agnosticism" has passed. In its place? The new "NYT Age of Assertion." NYT biz partner Ratner asserts & verifies to the NYT that Barclays Center will soon be. That is the 2009 NYT "Journalism of Verification." Got it?
    -- Patti Hagan

    ReplyDelete