More on the Gray Lady’s Credibility

The New York Times has posted the full report (HTML or PDF) from its “credibility committee.”

In an email to staff, Exec Editor Bill Keller said “This report grew out of a broader assault on the credibility of our craft, and our determination to be the leader in upholding the highest journalistic standards.”

“A more formal proposal for following up on the specific recommendations will wait until I’ve digested the feedback, a matter of a week or two, but I believe this document represents a sound blueprint for the next stage of our campaign to secure our accuracy, fairness and accountability,” he wrote.”

Bill Keller’s full email to the NYT staff follows after the jump.


Colleagues:

Most of you know that, as part of our continuing effort to shore up the credibility that is our most important asset, Al Siegal has been presiding over a committee looking into ways to increase reader confidence in us. The first Siegal Committee, which produced a number of systemic reforms, was inspired by a specific wound to our reputation. This report grew out of a broader assault on the credibility of our craft, and our determination to be the leader in upholding the highest journalistic standards. The committee has delivered its recommendations, along with a report on its deliberations. The document is at least the equal of the first Siegal report of two years ago — wise, measured but not timid, practical and inspiring. The full document is or shortly will be available to staff on Ahead of The Times, reachable through the navigator page. It’s also available to the world at large on the Nytco.com website. I urge every one of you to read it carefully. If you have strong reactions, pro or con, please send them to me or Al.

A more formal proposal for following up on the specific recommendations will wait until I’ve digested the feedback, a matter of a week or two, but I believe this document represents a sound blueprint for the next stage of our campaign to secure our accuracy, fairness and accountability. I will be working with Al to devise an implementation plan that goes beyond exhortation and attempts to hardwire these guidelines into the newsroom operations. That will probably mean enlisting department heads and some members of Al’s committee in explaining the guidelines up and down the line, and fixing responsibility for their enforcement. It will mean incorporating them into our new staff training programs. Some of the recommendations — notably several proposals for how we deal with the public — need to be handled in consultation with Dan Okrent and Barney Calame.

Will these reforms, by themselves, reverse the decline of public trust in news organizations? Of course not. There are too many factors beyond our control: the clamor of partisan critics on the right and left, who want journalism that conforms to their beliefs; the shouting heads who have made denunciation of the serious press part of their commercial shtick; the confusion, in this world of paid propaganda, blogged argument, tabloid gossip and cable shouting matches, about who is a journalist, and whether anyone can be trusted.

It’s essential, though, that we do our best to control the quality of the things that are in our control. That means a fuller dialogue with, as the committee puts it, “our publics,” which does not have to be self-referential or defensive. It means a clearer demarcation between news and opinion. It means more aggressive checking of facts — and the interpretation of facts — before we publish, and more systematic tracking of errors after we publish. It means continuing the campaign to curb the casual use of anonymous sources and to assure that, when we use unnamed sources, we tell our readers how the sources know the information and what motives they might have for telling us. It means rededicating ourselves to the principles that set this paper apart from much of what passes for journalism.

On at least one important credibility issue, the too-casual use of unidentified sources, we have not awaited the committee’s report to step up our efforts at reform. The week before last Phil Taubman and several other Washington bureau chiefs met with the White House press secretary, Scott McClellan to register concern about the proliferation of background briefings by officials who will not allow themselves to be identified. The idea was to start with the White House, and use any progress there as leverage to push for on-the-record briefings throughout official Washington. McClellan agreed to consider carefully whether a briefer can speak on the record. The bureau chiefs report they have already made some strides in getting briefings reversed from background to on-the-record. Small successes are still successes.

We all owe a debt to the colleagues who labored so long and thoughtfully on this project. Their names are listed at the end of the report. And, of course, Al Siegal: Priceless.

Stay tuned.

Bill