Ilegitimate Sources — The New York Times Wrist-Slaps A Reporter

Image by laffy4k via Flickr

I enjoy watching The New York Times doing its little mea culpa dance as choreographed each week by its public editor Clark Hoyt.

This week, it’s a reporter who received some wrist-slapping on this issue. This is a staffer who answers to an editor who expects productivity — i.e. published stories. But he also expects high standards and this reporter is on salary. He’ll get paid no matter how long it takes to find sources, or if they back out or if he can’t even find any.

The problem was this reporter’s unwillingness to find people to interview that he did not know personally beforehand, and this small group included three other sources, according to Hoyt, who have already been quoted many times in the paper. One of them is even a fellow freelancer for the paper, and how this got into the final version of his story in the paper is beyond me.

It may surprise some of you to know — or not — that every single freelance writer who writes for the paper is required to read, agree to and sign an ethics code. It’s quite clear to us freelancers, some of whom have filled the Times pages for years for pennies on the dollar versus what staffers warn for filling those same pages to the same standards, that screwing up on this front is simply not an option. We know there are people who would kill their grannies to achieve even one Times byline and quickly replace us. So, if for no other reason, most of us  tend to keep our noses very clean. Which is why watching a staffer play by different rules is really annoying.

He was caught thanks to, which bird-dogs the paper.

One of this ethics code’s many demands is that you do not interview people with whom you have a personal relationship, whether your brother-in-law who’s a perfect example of a laid-off banker or your last babysitter who, because you already know how witty she is, would easily give you some great quote about teens and social media. Tough. They’re all supposed to remain off-limits. It’s a real pain because every freelancer must ruthlessly divide up their time not only on one project but between multiple projects. Digging up smart, thoughtful, insightful, available sources is not that easy and can, therefore, eat up a lot of the time you’ve allotted to a piece — time you also need for reporting, interviewing, writing, editing and revisions. (Yes, we sometimes use HARO, but it has its limitations.) The Times, like almost every publication, negotiates a flat fee with its freelance writers, whether $400 or $4,000, and it’s up to the writer to budget his or her time efficiently, from initial calls and emails to finding and triaging your sources to the many editors’ final questions and revisions, which, at the Times, (I’ve written almost 100 stories for them) can be multiple.

i.e. Being lazy make you the most money.

Why does this matter?

It matters a lot. If, as some of us still persist in believing, newspapers and what they offer us is even semi-impartial — and this was a wildly popular front-page story quoting this staff reporter’s pals — it matters a great deal that a reporter reach beyond his or her own social and professional circle.

Let’s not mince words. How many Times staffers have so wide a network that it includes articulate people of different races, ages and socioeconomic groups able to take a call and willing to chat on the record? A reporter’s job, I think, is not the easiest or quickest or cheapest solution to the challenge of sourcing a story, but taking the extra time and trouble to seek out people who do not look, sound, act or think much as you do — which is what typically happens if you only talk to your friends and close associates. That’s why they’re close.

Diversity in sourcing matters as much as in hiring. Newspapers have a much broader duty to their readers than just repeating what 10 people think. (I’m not saying they’re great at this, but they need to try.)

The hardest, slowest (and therefore costliest in terms of time) part of writing some good stories is finding the sources who can best tell it. Not just the ones we know.

2 thoughts on “Ilegitimate Sources — The New York Times Wrist-Slaps A Reporter

  1. Although I agree that staffers, freelancers, editors, etc. should all be held to the same standard–and that anonymous sources should be used very, very sparingly–all the editors I have worked with over the years as a Times freelancer have extremely high standards when it comes to ethics and accuracy. I have enormous respect for those I work with there. It’s easy to jump all over this guy–sure, maybe he was lazy, or sloppy…or maybe it was just one instance of bad judgment. No one is immune to making an occasional bad call–not even those who work for the New York Times.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    The problem is it’s not just one instance, it’s common enough that, as you may know, staffers’ appearances in the corrections box are tallied and noted, as is fair.

    If you’ve worked in a newsroom, you know there’s a culture, either one of permissiveness or one of care. Given the recent appalling sloppiness of another reporter who blew many details of Walter Cronkite’s obit, enough already. These are held up as exemplars of the best in our business. So, I do expect excellence. Lazy is lazy.

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