Free Markets, Free People

Arthur Brisbane


Was it bias or lack of time that caused the NYT to get the Giffords story so wrong? Or both?

The New York Times public editor, Arthur Brisbane, engages in a little self-criticism of the Times.  It is about the Giffords shooting, and it highlights one of my critiques of the media for years.

That is, it feels the need to get the story out first rather than getting the story out right.  Or perhaps “feels the need” isn’t the right way to say that – the media has devolved into an industry where getting the story out first has become more of a priority than getting it out right.

The Giffords shooting and the Times give us the perfect case study.  First the premise:

JIM ROBERTS, the assistant managing editor who has helped create today’s NYTimes.com, likes to call it the 1440/7 news cycle — 1,440 minutes every day, seven days a week, each one of those minutes demanding news for delivery to a networked world.

In a word – wrong.

I don’t know about you, but as a consumer of news, what some might call a news junkie, I’m not demanding “news for delivery” in every one of those minutes.  Heck, I couldn’t absorb that much news – nor could anyone else.  What I want is factual, complete and comprehensive news delivered when it is ready to be delivered – i.e. confirmed and out of the realm of rumor.

In the case of the Giffords shooting the Times failed miserably at meeting my demand.  Brisbane details the failure.

A major breaking news event, occurring on a Saturday afternoon with a small staff on duty, with print deadlines to worry about and a Web site that needed to be fed as fast and as frequently as possible.

The Times’ first online posting came at 1:47 p.m., followed by two quick updates — at 1:53 and 2:16. These stories, pieced together from other news organizations that were on the ground in Tucson, reported the shootings and other basic facts, attributing word of the shooting to the congresswoman’s spokesman, C. J. Karamargin. At this point, her condition was described as “unclear.”

At 2:27, though, the story was revised to say Ms. Giffords had been shot and killed, attributing the information to Mr. Karamargin and “news reports.” Lower in the story, those news reports were identified as coming from NPR and CNN. As it turned out, the information was incorrect. The Times compounded the error by appearing to attribute it in part to Ms. Giffords’s own spokesman, who was not the source of the error.

Or said another way, the Times got it completely wrong and really didn’t know they had.  The question then is this – did anyone get on the phone to NPR and CNN or Rep. Giffords spokesperson and try to confirm the details?  Apparently not.

Enter the infamous “3 layers of editors”:

Here’s how the error was made. It was hectic in the newsroom with many news reports flowing in as Kathleen McElroy, the day Web news editor, was trying to decide whether The Times was ready to report Giffords’s death. She decided against it and was telling Web producers to hold off reporting it in a news alert when J. David Goodman, who was writing the story, told her he had a few changes he wanted to make.

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.

And suddenly, the Times was reporting, unedited, the death of Giffords.

Brisbane entitles his critique, “Time, the enemy”.  I call BS.  It wasn’t time that was the enemy, it was the unspoken premise that says “it is more important to get it out first than to get it out right” that seems to have infiltrated the media.  Brisbane sort of admits to that in another paragraph:

The Tucson shootings afforded another, quite different illustration of the pressure of time in news coverage — not pressure measured in seconds and minutes, but pressure that news organizations feel to define the context of a story, to set up a frame for it, sometimes before the facts can be fully understood.

Note his choice of words.  “define the context of a story” – “to set up a frame for it”.  He claims that has to be done “sometimes before the facts can be fully understood’”.

Really?  How in the freakin’ world does one “define the context of a story” without knowing the facts?  Well, as it turns out, they’re reduced to making assumptions and those assumptions, in the case of Giffords, were wrong.

The Times’s day-one coverage in some of its Sunday print editions included a strong focus on the political climate in Arizona and the nation. For some readers — and I share this view to an extent — placing the violence in the broader political context was problematic.

It wasn’t “problematic”, it was, as one reader claimed “a rush to judgment”.  So what was that rush to judgment based on?

One would have to assume, given the Times admits it didn’t have all the facts, it was based in bias.  How else does one “set up a frame” for a story for which it admittedly doesn’t have all the facts or “before the facts can be fully understood”?  You go with what you believe to be true, that’s how.

And, apparently, that’s precisely what the NYT and a whole bunch of other news organizations, politicians, pundits and bloggers did.

So strong was this bias that the Times admits it missed even more facts available and germane to the story:

Meanwhile, opportunities were missed to pick up on evidence — quite apparent as early as that first day — that Jared Lee Loughner, who is charged with the shootings, had a mental disorder and might not have been motivated by politics at all.

Fancy that – with the story framed the way the bias dictated, the Times wasn’t looking for facts that might contradict or dispute their frame. 

Is that what happened?  Well, not according to Brisbane.  You see, it was a function of “framing protocols” developed “generations ago”.

My, my – you mean like this nonsense?  If this is the function of generational framing protocols it would seem to me media organizations would be taking a serious look at modifying them.

Jerry Ceppos, dean of the journalism school at the University of Nevada, Reno, said journalists’ impulse to quickly impose a frame on a story is “genetic.”

“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.”

Nonsense. It may be "genetic" to an organization, but it is hardly "genetic" in the real sense to reporters. It is what is demanded of them by the media organization. And when that is what is demanded, inaccurate stories and bias are what you will get. And that’s precisely what the Times got.

A self-imposed dictum of "publish or die" has overridden that of "get the facts, corroborate them and get the story right" that should be dominant in any media organization. This internal requirement to "get it out first" instead of "get it out right" has naturally led to short-cuts – like pre-conceived frames which can be imposed even "before all the facts are understood".

The editors simply make assumptions based on what they initially have heard and then select the "facts" that support those assumptions. In short, they establish a bias and then "support" it. Brisbane’s two pages of equivocation and "transparency" aside, that’s the short version of what happened.

~McQ

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