Use of anonymous sources doomed New York Times story

We now know a little bit more about how the New York Times messed up a story of the San Bernardino shootings, claiming that the two people suspected of slaughtering 14 people two weeks ago had talked openly on Facebook about jihad, with the paper leaving the impression that the federal authorities were incompetent at monitoring such public activity.

The story was wrong, and — not surprisingly — involved the New York Times’ continuing dependence on “anonymous sources,” according to the Times’ “public editor” (ombudsman) Margaret Sullivan.

“This was a really big mistake,” executive editor Dean Baquet said, “and more than anything since I’ve become editor it does make me think we need to do something about how we handle anonymous sources.”

No kidding. People have been telling Times’ executives this for years.

Baquet said, however, that he’s not going to ban the use of anonymous sources in his newsroom.

Unbelievably, Baquet said it would have been “unrealistic” for the Times to have demanded proof from its sources that the Facebook posts existed.

“When we don’t know the details, as we didn’t here, there’s probably a reason for that,” Washington editor Bill Hamilton, who edited the original story said. “We didn’t see the dangers.”

For most journalists, we suspect alarms are now going off. How could such an important accusation not meet with even the tiniest bit of skepticism from anyone at the newspaper, from the reporter all the way to the top?

Even the non-journalists in comments attached to Sullivan’s explanation can figure it out:

The very premise of the story is that Malik’s communications about jihad on social media were public. How then could confirming the existence of these posts be “unrealistic under the circumstances”!? That seems like an obvious inconsistency. If a reporter is not going to verify the existence of documents when the very premise of the story is that the documents were open for all to see, then the Times has a very serious problem.

It’s fairly horrifying that such an obvious question never arose in the editing process.

Sullivan, who also revealed today she’s leaving the job, was relatively merciless in her conclusion:

The Times need to fix its overuse of unnamed government sources. And it needs to slow down the reporting and editing process, especially in the fever-pitch atmosphere surrounding a major news event. Those are procedural changes, and they are needed. But most of all, and more fundamental, the paper needs to show far more skepticism – a kind of prosecutorial scrutiny — at every level of the process.

Two front-page, anonymously sourced stories in a few months have required editors’ notes that corrected key elements – elements that were integral enough to form the basis of the headlines in both cases. That’s not acceptable for Times readers or for the paper’s credibility, which is its most precious asset.

If this isn’t a red alert, I don’t know what will be.

The Times has changed the story’s focus now to suggest that government officials failed to uncover the couple’s zealotry in the visa process.

Erik Wemple, media critic at the Washington Post, calls the new story “chicken wire.”

The New York Times is attempting to preserve the structure and feel of a story about federal government misfeasance in a world where there appears to be little or no misfeasance. Consider the new-look lede: It appears to fault immigration officials for failing to uncover Malik’s online views on jihad. Well of course they failed in that pursuit: Those views were expressed in private — and quite possibly encrypted — communications. There should be no expectation that they would be uncovered by immigration officials.

The better story right now is the one Wemple has been peddling all week: the New York Times appears to have been far more incompetent in its work than the federal authorities were in theirs.

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