NYT Public Editor Calls for ‘Systemic Change’: Decries Reliance on Anonymous Sources

The New York Times

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New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan called for ‘systemic change’ in a post on Friday, after a front-page story about one of the San Bernardino shooters necessitated an editor’s note.

“Mistakes are bound to happen in the news business, but some are worse than others,” Ms. Sullivan wrote. “What I’ll lay out here was a bad one. It involved a failure of sufficient skepticism at every level of the reporting and editing process — especially since the story in question relied on anonymous government sources, as too many Times articles do.”

The story, co-bylined by Times investigative journalists Matt Apuzzo and Michael S. Schmidt, citing unnamed sources in law enforcement, alleged that the Saudi-born shooter Tashfeen Malik had “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad,” meaning that immigration officials had missed a very visible and obvious warning sign, despite multiple background checks when Malik came to the United States from Pakistan.

The follow-up basically undermined the premise of the original story, which was that the immigration process had drastically failed by not looking at an easily searchable public post on social media. Subsequent reporting and comments from FBI Director James Comey revealed that Malik had not, in fact, openly called for jihad. Rather, her communications were conducted over private message and email.

The mistake, Times executive editor Dean Baquet told Ms. Sullivan, was a result of relying on unnamed sources who did not properly understand the distinction between public posts and private messages on social media platforms.

“This was a really big mistake,” Mr. Baquet acknowledged, “and more than anything since I’ve become editor it does make me think we need to do something about how we handle anonymous sources.”

But Mr. Baquet stopped short of banning anonymous sources entirely.

Ms. Sullivan, who is reportedly planning to leave the ombudsman post she has held since 2012 when her four-year contract is up in August, was more pointed in her recommendations:

“The Times need to fix its overuse of unnamed government sources. And it needs to slow down the reporting and editing process, especially in the fever-pitch atmosphere surrounding a major news event. Those are procedural changes, and they are needed,” Ms. Sullivan warned. “But most of all, and more fundamental, the paper needs to show far more skepticism – a kind of prosecutorial scrutiny — at every level of the process.”

NYT Public Editor Calls for ‘Systemic Change’: Decries Reliance on Anonymous Sources