Skip to main content

New York Times Public Editor seeks to maintain "sacred cloak of impartiality." Isn't it a bit late?

In his second column, Arthur Brisbane, the new New York Times Public Editor, is already wading into deep waters.

His column yesterday, In an Age of Voices, Moving Beyond the Facts, expresses alarm about news articles that contain "opinion" or "interpretive journalism":
When I asked Matt Bai about his Aug. 12 “Political Times” column on Representative Paul Ryan — the one Mr. Johnson criticized — he said: “I guess my column is part of a broader effort to take some chances in the paper and explore different formats for a new era. I think that represents a great and exciting trend for the paper; none of us can afford to think in old rubrics for new generations of readers.”

Bai’s editor, Richard Stevenson, the deputy Washington bureau chief, elaborated on how The Times is navigating the new norms. “We are still exploring how much of a voice you can have ... what kinds of conclusions you can draw when it comes to politics,” he said.

A news-page column like “Political Times” carries the “freedom to reach a reported conclusion,” he said. Not to “throw opinion around,” but to “express in a restrained and fact-bound way a conclusion about something.”
The "reported conclusion"

I think the notion of a "reported conclusion" is legitimate. Why? Because the Times, and the "objective" press, is full of implicitly reported conclusion.

Consider, for example, the egregious example of the Times quoting, without qualms, the claim last September by a New York City Economic Development Corporation spokesman that Atlantic Yards was "a site that is now an open railyard without any public benefit."

What made that claim even more egregious was that, well before the deadline for print, I posted a comment on the CityRoom blog demolishing that claim. I ran this all by Brisbane's predecessor, Clark Hoyt, who, predictably enough, ignored it.

The question might be: how to get to better reported conclusions?

The confusion

Brisbane makes the legitimate point that the Times is confusing its readers by suggesting fine distinction between rubrics such as “Man in the News,” “Reporter’s Notebook,” “News Analysis,” and “News-Page Column.”

He concludes:
These narrow distinctions reflect the struggle to remain impartial while publishing more and more interpretive material. How to resolve this tension?

One path is to do a much better job of labeling the work — and please don’t bother with the fine distinctions. Call it commentary or call it opinion, but call it something that people can understand.

That, or abandon the sacred cloak of impartiality.

I vote for the former but concede that the latter may offer better traction in the opinion-gorged landscape of the future.
So Brisbane wants the Times to maintain the "sacred cloak of impartiality." If so, then he'd better focus not only on explicit efforts to inject opinion--or conclusions--but also implicit ones.

Giving Gillmor short shrift

Brisbane gives one critic short shrift:
Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, the whole effort to demonstrate impartiality is wrong-headed to begin with... He sees no conflict between “having a worldview and doing great journalism,” and points to British papers like The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph as examples.
But Gillmor, in 1/20/05 blog post on The End of Objectivity, points to much more than the British press. He cites the importance of thoroughness, accuracy, fairness, and transparency.

The practice described by Gillmor that I've taken to heart is this:
Another way to be transparent is in the way we present a story. We should link to source material as much as possible, bolstering what we tell people with close-to-the-ground facts and data. (Maybe this is part of accuracy or thoroughness, but it seems to fit here, too.)
And an online format allows for that.

Readers react


Most readers, some of whom froth that the Times, as a liberal newspaper, is infecting its political coverage with liberal cant, agree with Brisbane.

Some of the more thoughtful ones, to my mind, disagree, pointing to the bigger picture. Three excerpts are below.

Bruce:
IT SEEMS to me that news coverage in the past few decades has been neutered by the need to keep up the appearance of being neutral. the fear of being called biased has cowed, in this case, the nyt reporters into being stenographers instead of reporters.
Suzanne Lainson:
I think there is inherent bias in everything we do. We all bring some sort of perspective to what we write. We decide who to interview, how to organize the information, how much space to give the story, where to feature it, and so on. Therefore, I would much rather have those biases very visible, and then, in order to get a broader picture of the story, I may seek out a variety of viewpoints. At the same time, there is a place for information, so that readers know how a particular story may impact their lives. There may be disagreements about a reporter's conclusions, but it is still helpful to be told why a particular story is important.
JH:
I recommend (a) Rosenstiel's dictum that impartiality should be regarded as a method, not as an outcome, and (b) the late Paul Foot's observation that "facts are the gold standard of comment." And, by the way, is there a difference between "comment", which, at least inferentially, is fact-based, and "opinion", which can be completely fact-free, or even fact-averse? Perhaps a greater threat than the type of articles discussed here is the threat from the subliminal use by news reporters of prejudicial language, juxtaposition, and selectivity to shepherd the unwary reader towards a pre-ordained view of the significance or meaning of events that coincides neatly with the undeclared and probably unexamined prejudices/world view of the writer. This s a much older and more intractable problem than the heading of the section in a paper where particular article appears.
B J E:
To me, even the most "objective" of news stories has a slant to them, either by omission or inclusion, so a jump to an opinion news piece is the next step. The real need then is to have the writer use reasonable facts to explain their conclusions, otherwise the article is purely an opinion piece and just a "he said, she said" piece.
Rosenstiel on fairness

The commenter referred to Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. He co-authored a 2001 book (updated 2007)with Bill Kovach, The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect.

From a review by Dane Claussen in Newspaper Research Journal:
In their "Journalism of Verification" chapter, where they do discuss "fairness" and "balance," they argue that impartiality is not necessary for the news media. Later, Kovach and Rosenstiel conclude that journalists should be independent, not neutral. They embrace a lost meaning of objectivity that refers to the reporting method, not results. In fact, they wisely point out,

"Balance, for instance, can lead to distortion. If an overwhelming percentage of scientists, as an example, believe that global warming is a scientific fact, or that some medical treatment is clearly the safest, it is a disservice to citizens and truthfulness to create the impression that the scientific debate is equally split. Unfortunately, all too often journalistic balance is misconstrued to have this kind of almost mathematical meaning, as if a good story is one that has an equal number of quotes from two sides. As journalists know, often there are more than two sides to a story. And sometimes balancing them equally is not a true reflection of reality."

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Forest City acknowledges unspecified delays in Pacific Park, cites $300 million "impairment" in project value; what about affordable housing pledge?

Updated Monday Nov. 7 am: Note follow-up coverage of stock price drop and investor conference call and pending questions.

Pacific Park Brooklyn is seriously delayed, Forest City Realty Trust said yesterday in a news release, which further acknowledged that the project has caused a $300 million impairment, or write-down of the asset, as the expected revenues no longer exceed the carrying cost.

The Cleveland-based developer, parent of Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner, which is a 30% investor in Pacific Park along with 70% partner/overseer Greenland USA, blamed the "significant impairment" on an oversupply of market-rate apartments, the uncertain fate of the 421-a tax break, and a continued increase in construction costs.

While the delay essentially confirms the obvious, given that two major buildings have not launched despite plans to do so, it raises significant questions about the future of the project, including:
if market-rate construction is delayed, will the affordable h…

Revising official figures, new report reveals Nets averaged just 11,622 home fans last season, Islanders drew 11,200 (and have option to leave in 2018)

The Brooklyn Nets drew an average of only 11,622 fans per home game in their most recent (and lousy) season, more than 23% below the announced official attendance figure, and little more than 65% of the Barclays Center's capacity.

The New York Islanders also drew some 19.4% below announced attendance, or 11,200 fans per home game.

The surprising numbers were disclosed in a consultant's report attached to the Preliminary Official Statement for the refinancing of some $462 million in tax-exempt bonds for the Barclays Center (plus another $20 million in taxable bonds). The refinancing should lower costs to Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the arena operating company, by and average of $3.4 million a year through 2044 in paying off arena construction.

According to official figures, the Brooklyn Nets attendance averaged 17,187 in the debut season, 2012-13, 17,251 in 2013-14, 17,037 in 2014-15, and 15,125 in the most recent season, 2015-16. For hoops, the arena holds 17,732.

But official…

At 550 Vanderbilt, big chunk of apartments pitched to Chinese buyers as "international units"

One key to sales at the 550 Vanderbilt condo is the connection to China, thanks to Shanghai-based developer Greenland Holdings.

It's the parent of Greenland USA, which as part of Greenland Forest City Partners owns 70% of Pacific Park (except 461 Dean and the arena).

And sales in China may help explain how the developer was able to claim early momentum.
"Since 550 Vanderbilt launched pre-sales in June [2015], more than 80 residences have gone into contract, representing over 30% of the building’s 278 total residences," the developer said in a 9/25/15 press release announcing the opening of a sales gallery in Brooklyn. "The strong response from the marketplace indicates the high level of demand for well-designed new luxury homes in Brooklyn..."

Maybe. Or maybe it just meant a decent initial pipeline to Chinese buyers.

As lawyer Jay Neveloff, who represents Forest City, told the Real Deal in 2015, a project involving a Chinese firm "creates a huge market for…

Is Barclays Center dumping the Islanders, or are they renegotiating? Evidence varies (bond doc, cash receipts); NHL attendance biggest variable

The Internet has been abuzz since Bloomberg's Scott Soshnick reported 1/30/17, using an overly conclusory headline, that Brooklyn’s Barclays Center Is Dumping the Islanders.

That would end an unusual arrangement in which the arena agrees to pay the team a fixed sum (minus certain expenses), in exchange for keeping tickets, suite, and sponsorship revenue.

The arena would earn more without the hockey team, according to Bloomberg, which cited “a financial projection shared with potential investors showed the Islanders won’t contribute any revenue after the 2018-19 season--a clear signal that the team won’t play there, the people said."

That "signal," however, is hardly definitive, as are the media leaks about a prospective new arena in Queens, as shown in the screenshot below from Newsday. Both sides are surely pushing for advantage, if not bluffing.

Consider: the arena and the Islanders can't even formally begin their opt-out talks until after this season. The disc…

Skanska says it "expected to assemble a properly designed modular building, not engage in an iterative R&D experiment"

On 12/10/16, I noted that FastCo.Design's Prefab's Moment of Reckoning article dialed back the gush on the 461 Dean modular tower compared to the publication's previous coverage.

Still, I noted that the article relied on developer Forest City Ratner and architect SHoP to put the best possible spin on what was clearly a failure. From the article: At the project's outset, it took the factory (managed by Skanska at the time) two to three weeks to build a module. By the end, under FCRC's management, the builders cut that down to six days. "The project took a little longer than expected and cost a little bit more than expected because we started the project with the wrong contractor," [Forest City's Adam] Greene says.Skanska jabs back
Well, Forest City's estranged partner Skanska later weighed in--not sure whether they weren't asked or just missed a deadline--and their article was updated 12/13/16. Here's Skanska's statement, which shows th…

Not just logistics: bypassing Brooklyn for DNC 2016 also saved on optics (role of Russian oligarch, Shanghai government)

Surely the logistical challenges of holding a national presidential nominating convention in Brooklyn were the main (and stated) reasons for the Democratic National Committee's choice of Philadelphia.

And, as I wrote in NY Slant, the huge security cordon in Philadelphia would have been impossible in Brooklyn.

But consider also the optics. As I wrote in my 1/21/15 op-ed in the Times arguing that the choice of Brooklyn was a bad idea:
The arena also raises ethically sticky questions for the Democrats. While the Barclays Center is owned primarily by Forest City Ratner, 45 percent of it is owned by the Russian billionaire Mikhail D. Prokhorov (who also owns 80 percent of the Brooklyn Nets). Mr. Prokhorov has a necessarily cordial relationship with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — though he has been critical of Mr. Putin in the past, last year, at the Russian president’s request, he tried to transfer ownership of the Nets to one of his Moscow-based companies. An oligarch-owned a…