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Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Ethics Toolbox

Lessons from the Times' stiff upper lip

By Andy Schotz

The New York Times is accustomed to controversy and criticism for its high-profile journalistic decisions. Recently, in a peculiar turn of events, the newspaper was targeted for saying and doing nothing.

As best as I could tell, the Times was not to blame for the frenzied rumors swirling around the capitol in Albany, N.Y.

As the newspaper dug in for a story about New York Gov. David Paterson, there was rampant speculation the Times was preparing a bombshell that would take down the governor.

Paterson, a Democrat, was lieutenant governor under Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned after the Times reported Spitzer was “Client 9,” a customer of a prostitution ring. As he took over for Spitzer in March 2008, Paterson wasted little time in revealing secrets about himself, such as past extramarital affairs and drug use. For a while, New York was up to its ears in scandal stories.

In February, as Paterson prepared to run for a full term as governor, rumors about the Times’ expected piece were all over the place. Would it reveal another affair? Other bad behavior? How long before Paterson resigns?

Speculative chatter prompted unusual behavior. A presumptive Republican gubernatorial candidate demanded that the Times end its “psychological warfare” against the governor and publish what it had, forthwith, instead of keeping Albany paralyzed with anticipation. Other news organizations couldn’t resist guessing about the phantom muckrake, which would run any moment now, we were told day after day.

At a news conference, Paterson promised not to resign and said he’d only leave through the ballot box or “in a box.” When the Times’ story came out, Albany roundly declared it a disappointment. The story examined the criminal past of a member of Paterson’s inner circle — a past Paterson said he knew of.

Two days later, the Times ran a second story. This one painted Paterson as ineffective, aloof and unreliable, among other faults. It was interesting, possibly damaging and good journalism on its own. But, again, no “smoking gun” Spitzer-style scandal.

(Subsequent Times stories revealed questionable actions by Paterson and the state police as a woman accused the inner circle member in story No.1 of assault. Those stories made waves that caused Paterson to change course and not run for a full term. As Quill went to press, calls for his resignation had intensified, especially after a state commission found that Paterson might have broken the law, and lied under oath, by seeking and getting free World Series tickets from a lobbyist.)

Most journalists won’t face what The New York Times did while covering Gov. David Paterson. People frequently ask us whether a planned story is “positive or negative,” but an entire state isn’t holding its breath, awaiting shock waves.

Still, this episode could help us set or review protocols on what to reveal before publication.

HERE ARE A FEW TIPS:

• Don’t gossip about stories as you work on them.

• There’s no reason to describe stories as “positive” or “negative,” no matter how many times you’re asked. Neither, I tell people; we’re trying to report truth.

• Tell sources only what they need to know to answer questions for your story. I’ll tell A what B said if it’s relevant to the story and I want A’s reaction.

• The same for documents. I’ve faxed a copy of a newly filed lawsuit to get an attorney’s reaction. But I don’t share documents I acquire, say, through FOI requests just because a source is curious. Anyone can file the same request.

• I never share anything I write with anyone outside the newsroom before publication. The commonly understood limit is reading quotes back to a source. Calling back to clarify information is always smart, but sources aren’t in charge of editing my copy, and I don’t give them that chance.

Through it all, the Times kept a stiff upper lip, as it were, never cutting through the chatter to say one way or the other what it was up to.

Except for one blog post acknowledging the hysteria. In it, Joe Sexton, the paper’s metropolitan editor, said: “Obviously we are not responsible for what other news organizations are reporting. It’s not coming from The Times.”

That was about all the Times needed to do, if that.

Sometimes, people misread or misinterpret published stories. Journalists try to think ahead of time what readers might ask, make the news as clear as possible and put it in proper context. But news organizations can’t control perceptions and certainly can’t jump in front of every wildfire rumor. Stories should speak for themselves.

The operative maxim isn’t “You can’t believe what you read in the newspaper.” Instead, “Be skeptical about whispers in the hallway.”

A lot of journalists were duped by the grapevine. That’s not the Times’ fault.

Andy Schotz, SPJ’s Ethics Committee chairman, is a reporter for The Herald-Mail, a daily newspaper in Hagerstown, Md. He has covered a variety of beats, including city hall and police and courts. Schotz is on the board of SPJ’s Washington, D.C., Pro chapter.

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