5 Ways the New York Times Fails

Sins of Modern Journalism at the Times and other Outlets

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The New York Times is the gold standard of journalism. This acclaimed organization has been reporting the news for over 160 years, breaking huge stories, and winning scores of Pulitzer prizes in the process. And yet, despite the amazing work that the paper did and continues to do, it’s pretty far from perfect. Here are a few reasons why New York Times stories are sometimes lazy or wrong or both.

Failure 1 — Generalizing from Low Sample Sizes (the N=1 problem)

It’s unfair to expect reporters to be expert statisticians, but even a layman should know that you can’t extrapolate from a single data point. And yet it happens all the time in Times reporting. Just last week there was an article, (based on a single source) which uncritically parroted the claim that Google makes 4.7 billion dollars a year from Google News. As the Columbia Journalism Review points out, this claim itself was based on a single gross estimate that a Google exec made back in 2008. That 4.7 billion number is entirely fiction.

That same week another Times story discussed how YouTube could radicalize young viewers with conservative propaganda. This would be a valid and interesting story, except that it was based entirely on one guy’s experience. Was Kevin Roose too busy to find other people to include in the story? Might other users have vastly different experiences?

The truth is that any narrative can be pushed if the sample size of supporting data is small enough. This consistent lack of evidence in NYT articles is not a good sign for the rigor of Times reporting.

Failure 2 — Relying on Twitter (and Tweets) for Stories

Not all stories are poorly sourced, and some reporters are nice enough to find at least a handful of story subjects. The problem is that these sources often come from Twitter.

Now this might just be my own personal pet peeve, but I don’t feel like the opinion of some rando with the handle @anarchopriapism should make it onto the paper of record. And yet, that is what Times columnist Bret Stephens did when he wrote about his hatred of millennials a few weeks back. I get that it’s easy to just take a tweet and use it as if it was a pull quote. But really, how hard is it to DM the Twitter user to ask if they want their name published? There are almost 200 million active Twitter users. Journalists can easily find a few tweets to bolster any given argument. It’s lazy and stupid, and only marginally better than polling a cab driver.

Failure 3— Using Anonymous Sources

The New York Times is much better at being skeptical of anonymous sources than say CNN , MSNBC, or BuzzFeed. They have a pretty well-defined policy that generally keeps them from printing fake news.

Still, the Times is a huge offender when it comes to uncritically giving a megaphone to masked, yet powerful figures. In September last year the paper ran a full editorial from an anonymous source. This person claimed to be a member of Trump’s staff who was working to “resist” the Trump administration from the inside. If this type of person isn’t the definition of a biased and interested party, then I don’t know who is.

Anonymous sources are a valuable tool when it comes to reporting big stories that attack powerful interests. A lowly whistleblower may need to remain anonymous for their personal safety. A prominent member of the White House staff should put their name on the article if they want to be taken seriously. Similarly, intelligence operatives who need to plant something in the news cycle should not be afforded the protection of anonymity that the Times often provides. Peddling anonymous rumors as news puts the credibility of the entire paper in doubt.

Failure 4 — Caving to Political Pressure

When the Times hired Sarah Jeong to its editorial board, the company displayed an admirable willingness to stand up to outrage mobs. Unlike the Atlantic, it refused to rescind a job offer to a controversial candidate. By showing a little backbone, the Times maintained its integrity and survived the short internet furor.

That same backbone seems to be missing with regards to a recent controversy. After the backlash against a political cartoon that many (including Donald Trump Jr.) criticized, the New York Times is removing all political cartoons. This outcome is less important than the precedent that it sets and the mindset it reveals. The company that once published the Pentagon Papers was successfully browbeaten into submission. When it comes to telling hard truths and important stories, how much spine can we expect from a paper that is so easily rolled?

Failure 5— Supporting Powerful Interests

It’s been over 15 years since esteemed Times columnist Judith Miller helped stampede America into Iraq. It’s been just over 10 since Andrew Ross Sorkin went from cheerleading Goldman Sachs to using his “unprecedented access” to report on the financial crisis.

With both Miller and Sorkin, “access” was valued above truth. Stories originating from banks, the intelligence agencies and the White House were reported uncritically. Thankfully, in the era of Trump “resistance”, government propaganda is much less trusted. The White House can no longer rely on a compliant media, and reporters are much better at asking tough questions.

Still, too much credence is placed in big agencies like the State Department, the CIA, and the FBI. Just last month, the Times spilled considerable ink on State Department claims that Bashar Assad may be using chemical weapons in Syria. Only a day later, they had to reverse themselves when a different government official admitted that there were in fact no chemical attacks. In both cases, reporting was at least a little critical, which is a welcome improvement from the Bush and Obama years. Hopefully this same kind of scrutiny would apply to Democratic administration, but I somehow doubt it.

Final Thoughts

The New York Times is an amazing organization that still does incredible work. It’s stock price is nearing all time highs and its subscription model makes it impervious to much of the clickbait that infects other news outlets. This makes it that much worse when the Times falls short. If even this powerful and revered paper can’t navigate the challenges of modern journalism, then what hope does the fourth estate of our society really have?

Married engineer in San Francisco. Interested in words, networks, and human abstractions. Opinions expressed are solely my own.

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