Sunday, February 22, 2004
Bad journalism: Instapundit picked up this item on The New York Times apparently recycling a quote and changing the party affiliation of the individual quoted to better fit the premise of the story.
This incident has resulted in my first e-mail to Times public editor Daniel Okrent, politely asking for an explanation. I'll report what I learn.
Let me also put on my professional journalist hat for a moment. There's nothing inherently wrong about recycling a quote -- if you do it honestly.
For example, let's say the mayor of Normalville is being investigated for corruption. You've written stories regarding the investigation before, and the mayor has vehemently denied any wrongdoing. A few weeks later, the state (let's just say for the sake of argument) Democrat Party leader calls for the mayor to resign. You, as a good journalist, try to get ahold of the mayor to get his response, but find out that he's on vacation in France and you can't reach him. In this sort of situation it's perfectly OK to grab an old quote and re-use it as long as you make it clear it's an old quote.
At first glance, what this reporter has done doesn't appear to fall into what I would consider standard and acceptable journalistic practice. You generally don't recycle "man-on-the-street" quotes -- they're a snapshot in time. This snapshot is two weeks old. That's probably OK for a monthly magazine, but not for a daily newspaper.
If I'm this reporter's supervisor, she's getting a hand slap if this is the first time she's done something like this. I'm also going to run a correction/clarification. Correcting the party affiliation and clarifying the time frame on the latest quote. If the reporter did go back to the quoted individual recently to get a new quote, then I'll direct the reporter to do some original reporting. What was done was, at the very least, lazy reporting.
However, I don't think this sort of thing is an isolated incident -- and that's the real problem at the Times.
*UPDATE* It turns out this isn't an isolated incident. Last time it was a different reporter, but the same disease. Maybe a memo to all of the reporters is in order.