Accuracy in Media

margaret sullivan nyt

Margaret Sullivan, The New York Times public editor, is a busy woman. For the third time in less than two weeks, she has taken the paper to task for its reporting.

In her latest column, Sullivan criticizes the paper for making changes to a story on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie without alerting readers to the fact that it was edited because the original reports were “if not untrue, then at least overstated.”

Sullivan noted that stories break every day with a few paragraphs online and then are later added to in a more polished version. But in this case, said Sullivan, the change was “more than nuance” and should have been corrected in some form in the follow-up versions of the story:

That happened at The Times on Friday. The reporter Kate Zernike broke a story based on a letter from David Wildstein’s lawyer saying that the former ally of Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey ‘had the evidence to prove’ that Mr. Christie knew about the now infamous lane closings at the George Washington Bridge in real time last September. Mr. Christie has consistently stated that he only learned about them recently.

Later, within the hour, the story was changed to soften the wording from ‘had the evidence’ to ‘evidence exists.’ Breaking news alerts had gone out immediately after the first version was posted, which meant that many people read the initial article with its stronger wording.

Metro Editor Wendell Jamieson defended his actions to Sullivan: “We made dozens of changes to this story, and it’s all happening live in front of the reader,” he said. “The story probably went through two dozen versions.” Editors can’t be expected to describe each one of those changes, he said.

Jamieson added that no change “alters the essential truth of the story, which is that a former Christie ally has opened fire on him in a big way.”

“This change was more than a nuance” Sullivan said. “Acknowledging that could have taken the form of a straightforward correction,” suggesting that an editor’s note or a sentence in the body of the article would have sufficed.

In retrospect Jamieson said he regretted not suggesting an editor’s note, validating Sullivan’s criticism.

The Time’s “bombshell” report on Gov. Christie was built on sloppy reporting and they owed it to their readers and to Christie to not only correct the inaccuracies, but to tell readers that they had erred.

First impressions count, and by not alerting the readers to the corrections, they left readers of the earlier version with the impression that Gov. Christie was lying about his knowledge of the closing of  the George Washington Bridge. But by their failure to alert the readers to this correction, the Times provided further evidence of the paper’s liberal bias.

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