NYT Public Editor on Clinton Story: ‘Less speed. More transparency’

"...a mistake waiting to happen. Or, in this case, several mistakes."

The New York Times

The New York TimesNew York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan weighed in on the paper’s handling of its story on a Justice department inquiry into whether emails on Hillary Clinton‘s personal account contained classified information.

In the Times’ initial story, presented and promoted like a blockbuster scoop, the inquiry was depicted as a criminal probe and Clinton was the direct subject of that investigation. As the Times walked back those original contentions, it received a lot of heat, both for its reporting errors and the way it handled corrections, which were made to the story without much explanation about the reasons for those corrections.

In her own investigation into what went wrong, Sullivan spoke to Times’ executive editor Dean Baquet and the editor and reporters who worked on the story–Matt Purdy, and Matt Apuzzo and Michael S. Schmidt, respectively.

In her discussion with Purdy, Sullivan was told the (un-named but well placed) source or sources had confirmed the important aspects of the story multiple times. Purdy told Sullivan he was puzzled about why information that turned out to be incorrect was confirmed.

The confirmation was based on a referral of the sort journalists are generally not allowed to see, requiring the reporters to go on the anonymous source’s analysis of the referral.

To recap: anonymous sources, an unavailable referral, and the frenetic pace associated with web reporting and the glory of the scoop. All less than desirable elements on their own, but together, according to Sullivan, “the lack of accountability that comes with anonymous sources, along with no ability to examine the referral itself, and then mix in the ever-faster pace of competitive reporting for the web, you’ve got a mistake waiting to happen. Or, in this case, several mistakes.”

What to do about anonymous sources is a persistent question that has no definitive answer and probably never will. Sullivan herself addressed the problem before. As for the siren call of the scoop, Sullivan reminds us that the short-lived glory of the catch is not worth it for the long-term damage a big mistake can bring: “Losing the story to another news outlet would have been a far, far better outcome than publishing an unfair story and damaging The Times’s reputation for accuracy.”

“I’ll summarize my prescription in four words,” she writes. “Less speed. More transparency.” A simple prescription against journalistic ego-tripping.