NYT: Say, maybe we should have waited for the facts before blaming the Right
posted at 1:55 pm on January 17, 2011 by Ed Morrissey
Don’t worry, though, because the New York Times’ public editor (their term for ombudsman) “shares the view to an extent” (emphasis mine) that the Times and the media rushed to put the Tucson shootings in a political context. Well, that’s certainly a relief. So whose fault was it that the Times pursued it to the extent of having its editorial board issue an essay the very next day putting the blame on the Right, saying that “it is legitimate to hold Republicans and particularly their most virulent supporters in the media responsible for the gale of anger that has produced the vast majority of these threats”? Uh … genetics, or something:
So why does a story get framed this way? Journalism educators characterize this kind of framing as a storytelling habit — one of relating new facts to an existing storyline — and also as a reflex of news organizations that are built to handle some topics well, and others less well.
“Journalists developed automatic framing protocols generations ago because of the need to report quickly,” he said. “Today’s hyper-deadlines, requiring journalists to report all day long and all night long, made that genetic disposition even more dominant.”
To be fair, there were some good reasons to steer the coverage initially in this direction. As Rick Berke, the national editor, said: “Our coverage early on was broad and touched everything from the possible shooter to the victims to the reaction to, yes, the political climate in Arizona. By our count, there were 49 stories in the paper the first six days after the tragedy, of which only 14 were political in nature. But it would be ridiculous for us to neglect that. After all, a politician was shot in the head while meeting with constituents. That same lawmaker had her office vandalized during an especially rancorous campaign. And after the shooting the sheriff called his state the capital of hatred and bigotry.”
Still, I think the intense focus on political conflict — not just by The Times — detracted from what has emerged as the salient story line, that of a mentally ill individual with lawful access to a gun.
Er, no, to be fair, there were no good reasons to steer the coverage in any direction. In fact, Arthur Brisbane’s notion that steering coverage of a breaking event is journalism should come as a rude awakening to the few defenders the Times still has. Why “steer the coverage” at all until the facts came out? Within a couple of hours, the gunman had been identified and enough was known about him to understand that he was a lunatic, not a political activist. Yet even after those facts became known and verified, the editorial board published its attack on the Right, implicitly blaming conservatives for the tragedy while using just enough weasel words to cover their own rear ends in case the witch hunt blew up in its face.
Ironically, Brisbane starts off the column by scolding the Times’ bloggers for repeating the erroneous NPR report of Giffords’ death without having its editors fact-check it first:
Ms. McElroy said, “I should have looked at every change,” but she thought Mr. Goodman was referring to small stuff. Mr. Goodman told me he then erred by reporting Representative Giffords’s death in the lead as though The Times itself were standing behind the information. In any event, Ms. McElroy had said O.K. without seeing that change, so Mr. Goodman pushed the button.
The result was a news story with changes that were not edited. Less than 10 minutes later, a new story appeared with the words “and killed” stricken.
“Nobody should self-publish,” said Philip B. Corbett, standards editor for The Times. “Everything should go through an editor. Ideally, it should go through two editors.”
Why? So that they can “steer the coverage” to their liking? In the case of the Times, the editors appear to be the problem, not the solution. The failure of the Times on this story had nothing to do with self-publishing a factual error that they quickly corrected, but an editorial decision to focus on a meme that was known to be false long before the editors themselves hit the publish button. Brisbane apparently doesn’t want to talk about that; he’d prefer that the Times stick to giving its readers one bum steer after another.