Getting things right in real time reporting: Hoyt

Using a nasty political battle that played out in the news media as an example, New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt issues a sharp reminder: “a newspaper that prides itself on getting things right must exercise
great discipline before pushing the button on a fast-breaking story”

Times reporters Danny Hakim and Nicholas Confessore reported that a top communications person in New York Governor David Paterson’s office directed staffers to tell reporters that Paterson had no intention of appointing Senate candidate Caroline Kennedy and that she withdrew her candidacy due to “tax” and “nanny” issues.

Of the original article Hoyt writes:

“Hakim and Confessore wrote that both issues — a tax lien of several
hundred dollars in 1994 and a lapsed visa for a foreign nanny in the
late 1980s — were highly exaggerated, had been resolved years earlier
and were not considered serious during the governor’s vetting process.The
article was a smart, useful revelation about New York hardball politics
and the credibility of the state’s accidental governor. But it should
have gone further. It should have examined The Times’s own role in the
story — posting the orchestrated leak on its Web site and allowing “a
person close to Gov. David A. Paterson” to make nasty comments about
Kennedy anonymously.”

Of the braoder significance of the situation, he adds:

“The episode highlights a great fear in newsrooms, including the
Times’s: that the Internet, with its emphasis on minute-to-minute
competition, is undermining the values of the print culture.”

The original story, headlined “Taxes and a Housekeeper Are Said to Derail Kennedy’s Bid” went up online at 2:52 p.m on Jan. 22, with a quote from an anonymous source saying that Paterson had never planned to appoint Kennedy “because it was clear she wasn’t ready for prime time.” Hoyt says he heard complaints from readers right away who were concerned the article did not follow up on the claims about tax and nanny problems made in the headline (there was no further info beyond the headline).

The story evolved throughout the day, context was added and various editors were in discussions about the use of the headline and the anonymous source. By late the same night, and for the print edition the next morning, the story’s focus had changed significantly and the allegations about Kennedy were moved to the bottom half of the story.

Hoyt concludes:

“I don’t agree that the first version of the story was appropriate; it should not have been published
with the offending quote and without more context and caution. I do
agree that The Times did a good job of staying on top of a tough story…

“This is where the print newspaper and the digital newspaper are
colliding. The traditional once-a-day cycle allows more time for
reporting and thoughtful discussion about how a story should be framed.
What happened in this case is that normal news reporting, in which a
story changes in content, tone and emphasis as more is learned, played
out in front of the whole world, instead of in the newsroom before
publication. In the process, Kennedy took an unfair hit.

“The Internet is the Times’s future. But the Kennedy saga is a sharp
reminder that a newspaper that prides itself on getting things right
must exercise great discipline before pushing the button on a
fast-breaking story.“