According to The New York Times' public editor, the paper's repeated publication of front-page, anonymously sourced stories that required major editor's notes damages the paper's credibility and should be a “red alert” for its editors.
Public Editor Margaret Sullivan criticized the Times' December 12 story, claiming San Bernardino shooting suspect Tashfeen Malik passed three background checks to gain a visa while “she talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad” was “wrong.” The report was echoed by the right-wing media and GOP presidential candidates before the FBI director denied the claim. The Times has since published an editor's note stating Malik's “comments about jihad were not made in widely accessible social media posts.”
Sullivan called the report “a failure of sufficient skepticism at every level of the reporting and editing process.” Times executive editor Dean Baquet called the “really big mistake” a “system failure that we have to fix,” explaining that the Times' “sources misunderstood how social media works and we didn't push hard enough.” Noting the two of the Times reporters who wrote the story had also been responsible for an anonymously-sourced story claiming that Hillary Clinton was under criminal investigation that later collapsed, Sullivan called the situation a “red alert.” From the December 18 post:
I have two major and rather simple questions: How did this happen? And how can The Times guard against its happening again? (As many readers have noted, some very critically, two of the authors of this article, Matt Apuzzo and Michael S. Schmidt, also wrote the flawed story in July that reported that Hillary Clinton would be the target of a criminal investigation by the Justice Department because of her email practices while secretary of state. Reporting by the third reporter on the current article, Julia Preston, who covers immigration, was restricted to the visa-vetting process.)
I talked on Friday to the executive editor, Dean Baquet; to one of his chief deputies, Matt Purdy; and to the Washington editor, Bill Hamilton, who edited the article. All described what happened as deeply troubling. Mr. Baquet said that some new procedures need to be put in place, especially for dealing with anonymous sources, and he said he would begin working on that immediately.
“This was a really big mistake,” Mr. Baquet said, “and more than anything since I've become editor it does make me think we need to do something about how we handle anonymous sources.”
He added: “This was a system failure that we have to fix.” However, Mr. Baquet said it would not be realistic or advisable to ban anonymous sources entirely from The Times.
How did this specific mistake happen?
“Our sources misunderstood how social media works and we didn't push hard enough,” said Mr. Baquet, who read the article before publication. He said those sources apparently did not know the difference between public and private messages on social-media platforms.
The Times need to fix its overuse of unnamed government sources. And it needs to slow down the reporting and editing process, especially in the fever-pitch atmosphere surrounding a major news event. Those are procedural changes, and they are needed. But most of all, and more fundamental, the paper needs to show far more skepticism - a kind of prosecutorial scrutiny -- at every level of the process.
Two front-page, anonymously sourced stories in a few months have required editors' notes that corrected key elements - elements that were integral enough to form the basis of the headlines in both cases. That's not acceptable for Times readers or for the paper's credibility, which is its most precious asset.
If this isn't a red alert, I don't know what will be.