The media learn to accept their fair share of blame

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Think a news story you just read was unfair or a bit slanted?

With the click of a few keys, readers now routinely give reporters a piece of their mind, sound off to editors, or send out thousands of e-mails to friends and associates making their own case in a story.

The result: The powerful fourth estate - once renown for circling the wagons at the slightest hint of criticism - finds itself in the position, more and more, of having to explain itself.

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Technology has given readers and viewers more access to the media, transforming the traditional news model from the "esteemed journalist" to the "trusting consumer" into a conversation with a far more skeptical audience.

"Usually news speaks for itself, but when reporting leaves questions in the public's mind, I think it's appropriate and increasingly necessary for journalists to explain how and why they made the decisions that they did about coverage," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington.

The latest example: The New York Times and its highly unusual, 1,600-plus word "assessment" of where its coverage went wrong in the Wen Ho Lee story.

Even some of the harshest critics of the paper's initial stories - it called the case, which crumbled this month, "the most damaging espionage of the post-cold war era" - commended the paper for its action this week.

"On the one hand, it was very bold," says Eric Boehlert of the online magazine Salon.com who wrote "How The New York Times Helped Railroad Wen Ho Lee." "On the other, I thought they very skillfully pulled their punches."

The powerful paper, which other news organizations routinely follow, insisted it that on the whole it remains "proud of the work that brought into the open a major national security problem." But it also admitted several crucial errors, which in the end did not give Dr. Lee the "full benefit of the doubt."

Top on that list, the early articles adopted an alarmist tone without being skeptical enough of the FBI's case against the Taiwanese-born scientist, which turned out to be weak, at best. "A factual error ... is not nearly as pernicious or as important as an error of editorial judgment over time," says Alex Jones, the co-author of "The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times. "This is a great lesson, not just for The New York Times but for everyone in journalism."

Mr. Jones notes there's a temptation in the heat of the pursuit of what appears to be a clear villain to lose the journalistic distance, which is crucial, particularly when issues like the national interest are invoked. "This is a model of how The New York Times could be right in what it reported factually, but mainly wrong, because of what it didn't report and a lack of distance and dispassion," says Jones, a former media writer for The New York Times.

Like other critics, Jones believes it was honorable and appropriate for the Times to explain itself. But some, like Boehlert, don't think the paper went far enough, particularly with what he says is a pattern of alarmist reporting by the Times's Pulitzer-Prizewinning investigative journalist Jeff Gerth. "The Times very much focused on, isolated, and pretended the Wen Ho Lee coverage was not symptomatic of a larger pattern," says Boehlert, citing Whitewater and the alleged transfer of satellite technology to China by a US defense contractor as earlier stories that have raised questions.

This movement toward more external criticism, as well as internal soul searching, is a product of the new "interactive journalism" that is evolving on the Internet.

And while Mr. Rosenstiel contends this is new and increasingly needed in the digital age, he says it also harks back to the 1920s, when "objectivity" first entered journalistic ethics.

"The birth of objectivity came out of a growing recognition that people were not objective, that you could

gather facts that were all true and come up with a totally distorted report," says Rosenstiel. "It was after the birth of post-modernism and Freud that journalists began realizing that just marshalling facts is ridiculously naive - what about all of the unconscious bias we bring to these facts?"

Technology also played a crucial role in alerting the public to what critics say was the Times's bias in early Lee coverage. Asian-Americans, who saw the treatment of Lee as ethnically biased and overly hysterical, organized over the Internet, sending out thousands of e-mails to the public and others in the media, making Lee's case.

The scientific community also came to his defense, writing opinion columns and letters to the editor about routine scientific practice in the nation's nuclear-weapons labs, which much of the media had until then ignored.

It all had an effect. Other news outlets began writing more skeptical stories, questioning investigators' motives and tactics. Even The New York Times later reported that the FBI's case was "circumstantial and therefore weak."

But the initial media coverage had stoked the flames of indignation on Capitol Hill, and even after the later stories appeared, Lee was indicted, arrested, and spent nine months in solitary confinement.

"The main lesson to be learned is that we have to find an effective way to verify information given to us by government sources who have an agenda," says Robert Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Media critics hope the episode will continue to force more self-examination in the press at a time when technology has fueled a frenzy of competition and a lowering of overall standards.

Jones also hopes other news organizations don't just write about what The New York Times did wrong, but also turn a skeptical eye to their own coverage.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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