The situation in Ferguson after the grand jury announcement was explosive, as you all know. The anger was extreme. Above, protesters tip over a police car.
When in doubt, leave it out. So goes the old expression about editing a news story.
Of course, that wisdom always works best in retrospect. And retrospect requires actual facts, not misinformation.
Here’s what happened in the case of a brief blog post last week about the former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson’s marriage. The facts of the situation have been widely misreported and misunderstood, and my office has received hundreds of emails on the subject from angry readers who erroneously believe that The Times published Mr. Wilson’s address. (Some readers also wrongly believe that The Times published his phone number as well.)
Two Times reporters – Julie Bosman and Campbell Robertson – wrote a brief online post about Mr. Wilson’s recent marriage. They had a copy of the marriage license, and The Times published a photograph of it. That marriage license had an address on it, although it was that of a local law firm, not Mr. Wilson’s.
Separately, the blog post did give Mr. Wilson’s street name and the name of his town. It did not give the house number. The post also noted that he hadn’t been living there for some time.
After some concerns were raised about the address on the marriage license, The Times took the photo off the website and attached a somewhat misleading editor’s note. It read: “An earlier version of this post included a photograph that contained information that should not have been made public. The image has been removed.”
The wording of that editor’s note has changed, because it helped give credence to the false idea that the officer’s address was published on the marriage license. It was not. The new note reads: “An image of the marriage license originally published with this post was removed after concerns were raised over whether a home address was included on the license. In fact, the address was for a law firm’s office; the image did not show any home address.”
As a result of this misinformation – which has been through the media spin cycle several times – the writers of the blog post have been targeted and criticized, quite viciously.
The Times’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, told me today that he is “outraged for the two reporters.”
The coverage from Ferguson, he said, has been “fair, aggressive and excellent, as well as conscious of the views of both sides.” Ms. Bosman, he noted, has been in Ferguson for months now, and reported brilliantly while enduring dangerous conditions. Speaking of the Ferguson reporting team, he said, “they’ve done it heroically.”
I’ve been critical of some aspects of The Times’s Ferguson reporting (perhaps too critical, in retrospect, in terms of the necessity of using anonymous sourcing). But the reporting, overall, certainly has earned Mr. Baquet’s plaudits.
As for the publication of the street name, I agree with Erik Wemple of The Washington Post, who wrote last week that it was unnecessary. (I would say the same for the original publication of the photograph of the marriage license.)
For those who are interested in what actually happened, here’s a worthwhile assessment from Snopes.com, a website that checks out (and sometimes debunks) rumours.
It says, in part: “The Times did mention that Wilson and his wife own a house in Crestwood and referenced the street name, but they did not publish the full address; moreover, that information was neither current nor revelatory in nature since (as noted in the same article) the Wilsons had vacated the house months earlier, and that same information had already been widely disseminated back in August 2014 in coverage of the Mike Brown case published in major newspapers such as The Washington Post and The Boston Globe.”
With the benefit of hindsight, even publishing the street name may have been unwise in such an emotionally fraught situation. But the reality of what was published bears little resemblance to what The Times and its reporters are being accused of — and pilloried for.
The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto comments:
“Palin, Amid Criticism, Stays in Electronic Comfort Zone,” read the headline of a New York Times news story Jan. 11, 2011…
The former headline, in case you’ve forgotten, referred to a campaign document produced by SarahPAC, the Alaska ex-governor’s political action committee, that identified congressional districts represented by Democrats who were vulnerable in the 2010 midterm election. When one of those Democratic representatives, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was shot by a madman in January 2011, liberals across the land, especially at the Times, implausibly blamed Palin…
The tone of Sullivan’s post is strikingly defensive. Before even getting to the just-quoted description of what happened, she asserts: “The facts of the situation have been widely misreported and misunderstood, and my office has received hundreds of emails on the subject from angry readers who erroneously believe that The Times published Mr. Wilson’s address.”
In reality, the distinction between publishing Wilson’s address and what the Times actually did is a minimal one. It’s not as if his home is Third Avenue in New York City, or some other long and densely populated thoroughfare. It’s on a short street—less than half a mile long—in a small city. We won’t repeat the location information, but according to Google Maps, there are only some 40 houses on the street…
Why not just acknowledge unequivocally that the Times made a mistake? Especially given that the paper once faulted Sarah Palin for identifying congressional districts.