Saturday, August 25, 2012

Times quietly replaces misleading Atlantic Yards graphic, without correction

See link to other examples.

Departing New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane, who once questioned whether the Times should be a "truth vigilante," says goodbye in a final column, Success and Risk as The Times Transforms, which makes a surprising claim:
The strong suit, though, is the corrections desk, led by Greg Brock, where thousands of errors are somehow adjudicated every year. This is a powerful engine of accountability, unmatched by any other corrections operation I have seen, and a potential foundation element for a portal where The Times could prominently display “transparency, accountability, humility.”
Actually, no.

Despite official Times recognition of "an ethical responsibility to correct all its factual errors, large and small," in practice, the newspaper seems to do its best to avoid making corrections. The time it takes for Brock to tell me off could be better spent serving readers.

Original online graphic; annotations in blue
Just as the New York Police Department has been criticized officers for downgrading crimes, so as to report more rosy statistics, I wonder if the Times seems bent on excusing away errors, trying to keep its statistics down, rather than simply correcting the record so as to not mislead readers and researchers.

A correction without a correction

For example, the Times has quietly revised a misleading map (right) of the "Atlantic Yards Project Area" that suggested that the Barclays Center arena would represent a far smaller portion of the arena block than reality.

The map, suggesting a bonsai arena, accompanied a Times article 4/17/12 that was misleading in several ways. The map, whether by design or merely (more likely) carelessness, bolstered the perception that the arena would be a relatively petite interloper.

As I wrote, the map was misleading in several ways. First, it covered only the arena block, west of Sixth Avenue, plus a small fraction of the rest of the project site. (For the overall project plan, see the top of this blog.) So there was no mention of the planned interim surface parking lot, at the southeast block of the 22-acre project site.

Photo from AtlanticYards.com
Undersized arena

Perhaps most importantly, the map suggested that the Barclays Center arena extends barely halfway between Fifth and Sixth avenues, rather than quite close to Sixth.

Similarly, it suggests that the arena extends south from Atlantic Avenue barely past the halfway point, Pacific Street, rather than nearly to Dean Street.

Current online graphic, without arena outline
Also, two streets were missing: Sixth Avenue is a through street east of the arena block, continuing north from Dean Street to Atlantic Avenue. Pacific Street, while demapped for the arena block, extends east of Sixth Avenue.

Whitewashing the past

I recently took a look back at the article and saw, to my surprise, that a new map had been substituted, which omits the misleading outline of the arena.

No correction was posted.

Such a stealth adjustment is called "rowback," which former Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent described in his 3/14/04 column as "a way that a newspaper can cover its butt without admitting it was ever exposed." In other words, a correction without formally acknowledging a correction--as the Times has done multiple times in the past regarding Atlantic Yards, as I wrote in November 2007.

Indeed, a look at the URLs for the graphics indicates a change to a "v2," or "version 2," from http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2012/04/17/nyregion/17arenamap/17arenamap-popup.jpg
to http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2012/04/17/nyregion/17arenamap/17arenamap-popup-v2.jpg.

Similarly, the thumbnail version of the graphs has been updated, from http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2012/04/17/nyregion/17arenamap/17arenamap-thumbWide.jpg
to http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2012/04/17/nyregion/17arenamap/17arenamap-thumbWide-v2.jpg.

An attempt at a correction

Scan from print paper, with original graphic
The day the article was published I sent a request to the Times for a correction, pointing to concerns I cited in my blog: the out-of-scale arena, the missing streets near the arena block, and the failure to indicate the missing "tooth" east of Sixth Avenue.

Brock, who has indicated his displeasure with my requests in the past, responded:
I see no factual inaccuracies here. (Though I had been curious to see what you would complain about this time.) I am sorry the map "suggests" these things to you. But it gives no incorrect information.
The fact that two streets are missing also does not create an incorrect map. We have never run a map that included every street and alley and we never will.

And the absence of the so-called "tooth" in no way causes the point of the map to be incorrect. The purpose of a map like this is to give readers an overview of the area. Our intention was not to run a detailed surveyor's map, using geometry, trigonometry, physics and engineering. If you feel someone needs to see that, you can hire a surveyor and publish a more thorough map on your site.

In short, no correction of the map will be published because there are no factual errors.
My response

I responded:
March 2008 Times graphic
I'll note that, in September 2009 and in March 2008, to pick two quick examples, the Times did include maps that outlined the entire project area and were less misleading:

Based on those examples, would it not have been appropriate yesterday to either publish a map of the entire project area--after all, the article aimed to evaluate the impacts of the entire project, including the "scar" of the railyard--or to indicate in the caption that it was a "Partial Atlantic Yards Project Area"?

The March 2008 graphic did indicate demapping on the arena block, but clearly indicated that Sixth Avenue between Dean Street and Atlantic Avenue [sic] were not to be demapped, as had Pacific Street east of Sixth Avenue. That September 2009 outline did not designate which streets were to be demapped on the arena block--perhaps confusing but less inappropriate than yesterday's map, because those streets had not yet been demapped.

September 2009 Times graphic
In the map published yesterday, the graphic appropriately indicated that Pacific Street west of Sixth Avenue and Fifth Avenue north of Flatbush had been demapped, but left the misleading impression that Sixth Avenue between Dean Street and Atlantic Avenue had been demapped, as had Pacific Street east of Sixth Avenue.

Also, I'll note that you did not address the issue of correcting the scale of the map, which portrays the arena as far smaller, in relation to the overall arena block, than its actual ratio.

As for hiring a surveyor, I'll note that a more accurate outline of the project site is published daily, at the top of my blog.
The aftermath

I didn't hear back from Brock, but, as noted above, a correction has been made, if not acknowledged. regarding the one issue--the scale of the arena--that he didn't address.

So Brock's statement that "no correction of the map will be published because there are no factual errors" is not true. There were factual errors--even if the failure to indicate the streets may be a (bad) judgment call, the size of the arena was clearly misleading.

But no correction was published.

Truth vigilantism

Because of Brock's hostile posture, I did not bother to pursue a more important untruth raised in the 4/17/12 article:
For Forest City Ratner, the developer of the project, which was strongly backed by many city leaders, the changes are evidence that the arena has already met its goal of transforming a dreary section of Brooklyn — the Long Island Rail Road’s rail yards and surrounding industrial buildings, which the company’s spokesman described as “ a scar that divided the neighborhood.”
“That’s a sign of economic vitality, something that’s good for the borough,” said Joe DePlasco, the Ratner spokesman.
In other words, the project has successfully removed the blight that was the justification for eminent domain.

It hasn't.

Forest City Ratner hasn't even paid the MTA for the development rights to most of the railyard. It renegotiated a 22-year schedule to pay. As for the "surrounding industrial buildings," the largest (the Ward Bakery) was torn down for the interim surface parking lot (bookended by a historic district), and other large ones were condo conversions torn down for the arena (Spalding, Atlantic Arts).

Rather, the combination of the arena, and dense nearby residential populations, has driven up rents. And, as Chuck Ratner, then CEO of parent Forest City Enterprises, once said, "it's a great piece of real estate" (not a "dreary section of Brooklyn").

It is not a sufficient defense to state that the reporter accurately quoted Forest City Ratner's spokesman. Consider that the same reporter was once misled by the same spokesman, in a less important way in the 9/24/09 Times, and newspaper ultimately--after my correction request--published a correction:
An article on Thursday about the unsuccessful efforts by the Libyan president to pitch a tent to use while he was in New York to speak before the United Nations General Assembly.... included an erroneous comment about the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn from a spokesman for the project’s developer.... about 40 percent of the project — not “most” of it — is being built over a railyard.

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