Monday, March 05, 2007

Corrections fatigue: The Times stonewalls on lawsuit story

The importance of the New York Times to the historical record was reinforced this past weekend during a symposium on Robert Moses, where several of the presenters, in their accompanying slides, included copies of Times articles.

Then again, one academic, the University of Pennsylvania's Lynne Sagalyn, observed that, to study coverage of Atlantic Yards, you have to look at the blogs, and that's true. Otherwise, historians might be confused, for example, by the Times's 2/24/07 coverage of the federal eminent domain case.

Filing a complaint

A week ago, I contacted Karin Roberts, assistant to the Metropolitan Editor, who handles corrections on the Metro Desk, to complain about an Associated Press article the Times published on the case:
I write to request a Correction (not merely For the Record).

The Times's headline and excerpting of an AP article on the Atlantic Yards eminent domain lawsuit Saturday was irresponsible.

The five-paragraph article was headlined "Judge Urges Dismissal of Atlantic Yards Suit" and indicated that, following the magistrate's recommendation, a judge "has the final say on whether the suit survives."

However, the Times failed to inform its readers that the case could be re-filed in state court, and that the plaintiffs will do so. The magistrate's recommendation was that the suit be dismissed without prejudice, on procedural grounds, and he even made a respectful reference to the merits of the case.

A longer version of the AP story, updated in the early evening on Friday, made that point, though it was clear to anyone skimming the legal opinion.

(The text was on the New York Observer's blog The Real Estate before 6 pm.)

When the AP updated the story, the news service did not revise the lead, as it should have done. (The AP should've gotten it right the first time, as well.) The Times, and perhaps some other news outlets, cut from the bottom but didn't rewrite the lead or headline to indicate the state court option.

The Daily News was more precise, in an article headlined N.Y. home court in arena suit - judge.

I posted accurate coverage shortly after 9 pm. I updated it in the morning with references to the news coverage.

The Times's coverage was inadequate and misleading. It should be corrected.

I would appreciate your prompt attention to this matter, and a direct response.


The Times responds

Roberts provided a prompt, direct, and brief response:
Please take this up with the Associated Press. If they run a correction, we will publish it.

Appeal to Public Editor

That struck me as inadequate, since I was pointing to the Times's responsibility. So I wrote to Public Editor Byron Calame:
You can scroll down to read my letter requesting a correction below, and also Karin Roberts' brief response disclaiming any Times responsibility and sloughing off the issue to the AP.

My request for correction regards the Times's editing and thus interpretation of the AP story. By truncating a story that had key information several paragraphs down, the Times disserved its readers.

The AP story had a misleading lead and was poorly organized; however, the Times's editing of the story turned it into a gross distortion.


Public Editor weighs in

Calame responded promptly:
I think the response of Karin Roberts was responsible and appropriate.

Calame's email contains the disclaimer that his opinions are his own and don't represent that of the Times. Then again, the Public Editor is the readers' representative.

Even if the AP were exclusively responsible for the error--which wasn't the case--why should it be the responsibility of a reader to ensure a correction? If the Times published incorrect information from any source, you'd think the newspaper would take on the responsibility of correcting it.

Times policy

Indeed, the Times Stylebook sets out a far-reaching Corrections policy:
Because its voice is loud and far-reaching, The Times recognizes an ethical responsibility to correct all its factual errors, large and small (even misspellings of names), promptly and in a prominent reserved space in the paper. A correction serves all readers, not just those who were injured or who complained...

A complaint from any source should be relayed to a responsible editor and investigated quickly....

Seldom should a correction try to place blame or deflect it outside The Times; the effort might appear defensive or insincere. But when an error has occurred under the byline or credit of a blameless staff member or news agency, the correction may cite an editing error or a transmission error.


The Times, in this case, does not appear to be following that policy, and the Public Editor doesn't seem to care.

It's another case of Atlantic Yards corrections fatigue, which I've defined as "the disturbing realization that we too often make errors in covering Atlantic Yards."

Fatigue overcome?

Yesterday, the Times, in the Styles section, published the following correction:
The Night Out column on Sept. 10, about the novelist James Ellroy, misstated the surname of a Los Angeles police detective who helped Mr. Ellroy investigate the unsolved case of his mother’s murder. He was Rick Jackson, not Jacobson. A reader pointed out the error in an e-mail message Nov. 22. This correction was delayed because editors did not follow through on the complaint.
(Emphasis added)

Someday, perhaps, editors will follow through on several Atlantic Yards corrections.

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