New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt was a credit to his paper this past weekend when he essentially admitted that the Times screwed up in publishing anonymous quotes in a story about Caroline Kennedy’s withdrawal from consideration for the Senate seat in New York:
On Jan. 22, the day after Kennedy withdrew, [Times reporter] Hakim received one of the calls from the [Gov. David] Paterson camp, and at 2:52 p.m., an article appeared on the paper’s Web site under the headline, “Taxes and a Housekeeper Are Said to Derail Kennedy’s Bid.” It quoted the anonymous source as saying that Paterson “never had any intention of picking Kennedy because it was clear that she wasn’t ready for prime time. She had botched her rollout. She was unprepared. She clearly had no policy experience and couldn’t handle the pressure of the public stage.” The article had no more information about the tax and housekeeper problems than was in the headline.
As Hoyt explains, Times staff felt the pressure to keep up with the New York Post, which had just posted a story about Kennedy nine minutes earlier. In its haste, the Times did a disservice to Kennedy and its readers.
But Mathew Ingram, writing for Nieman Journalism Lab, saw the gaffe and subsequent reader reaction as a case of news business “evolving online in real time“:
But to me, the Kennedy story evolved exactly as many stories evolve in real-time online. … Readers complained to Hoyt within minutes of the story appearing, as did some other NYT editors, and as a result the story was broadened and more fact-checking was done.
That to me is a success.
It is indeed a positive that more fact-checking was done as a result of reader and editor complaints, and that the story was enhanced with quotes disputing the source’s account. But that doesn’t mitigate the basic cause of those complaints: that the Times had violated its own Confidential News Sources Policy:
We do not grant anonymity to people who use it as cover for a personal or partisan attack. If pejorative opinions are worth reporting and cannot be specifically attributed, they may be paraphrased or described after thorough discussion between writer and editor. The vivid language of direct quotation confers an unfair advantage on a speaker or writer who hides behind the newspaper, and turns of phrase are valueless to a reader who cannot assess the source.
Hoyt quotes Bob Steele, ethicist at Poynter Institute, who sums up the issue correctly in my opinion:
“Competitive fervor is not a justifiable ethical value.”