Among the "action steps" recommended in 2005 by the Commission on the Role of the Press in a Democracy headed by Geneva Overholser was for journalists to "enhance transparency." Transparency-enhancing takes many forms, ranging from short editors' notes explaining why a newspaper decided to publish potentially offensive content, to longer post-mortem columns, either by staff editors or by independent public editors/readers' representatives/ombudsmen that pick the paper's coverage apart.
Perhaps the most elaborate transparency efforts have been the Los Angeles Times' 14-page self-flagellation exercise over the Staples Arena affair in 1999, The New York Times four-page spread chronicling the many journalistic sins of Jayson Blair in 2003, and a similar exercise at USA Today exposing the depredations of Jack Kelley. Much has been written about these scandals-and about how the newspapers in question handled them. ("Is anything more tiresome than high-minded journalists brooding over their profession?" Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto asked after slogging through Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw's account of the Times-Staples ad revenue-sharing deal.)
Here I would like to take a closer look at the more modest transparency efforts that appear on page A2 of The New York Times.
Such matter didn't always appear on A2. For a long time "Corrections," the daily "News Summary" and the "Quotation of the Day" appeared at the bottom of the first Metro page, which was either toward the back of the front section or on B1. As far as I can tell from a search of the historical New York Times database in ProQuest, the first editor's note about a story that had already appeared in the paper was published in February 1983.1
"Under this rubric," the editors explained, "the Times will amplify articles or rectify what the editors consider significant lapses of fairness, balance or perspective. Corrections, also on this page, will continue to deal with factual errors." Implicit in the distinction is that the paper should be as accountable for ethical lapses as it is for factual errors.
The first such editor's note acknowledged a misleading and one-sided headline on a column about the "erosion of good faith on all sides" of the publishing industry. The headline: "Publishing: Agent Says Writers Are Cheated." The note also alerted readers to the fact that "in editing to fit available space, two balancing paragraphs reflecting publishers' point of view were omitted." Presumably, a publisher or two complained.
In June 1983, the Times tightened the wording of its "Editor's Note" explainer, changing "rubric" to the less arcane "heading" and changing the tense from future to present. In December of that year, the paper did away with the explainer altogether. Three years later, the Times moved the whole apparatus to the front of the weekday paper, usually on p. A3. It shifted to its present location on A2 in 1992.
Among the more notable notes I've saved for one reason or another over the years are an apology for a photo that "had been retouched to reveal less of [a] woman's breast"; an apology for a posed photo of a boy aiming a toy pistol near a sign for an "Arabian Foods" market in Lackawanna, N.Y.; and a longer-than-usual item informing readers of a Times Magazine article about the travails of a Malian boy who slaved away on a cocoa plantation in the Ivory Coast, that the boy was a composite character and that the writer, freelancer Michael Finkel, "will not receive further assignments."
But the editor's communiques that have gotten the most attention were not pegged to an individual story or photo but to ongoing coverage. "The Times and Wen Ho Lee," published Sept. 26, 2000, and "The Times and Iraq," published May 26, 2004, were so long (1,620 and 1,203 words, respectively) that they couldn't very well be called "Editor's Notes"; the Times labeled them "From the Editors."2
The two essays had more in common than their titles. Each began, oddly, with an expression of pride in what the paper had done right, followed by a "wish" that the paper had done some things differently. Media critics' reactions were mixed. A letter writer called the Wen Ho Lee piece an "apologia, of sorts." Journalism professor Lee Wilkins used the word "tepid" in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to describe it.
On the plus side, Geneva Overholser called the Times' self-scrutiny "an honorable act on the part of the nation's most influential newspaper" and "a very valuable precedent." And Jim Naughton, then-president of the Poynter Institute called it "the most extensive and personally anguished explanation the Times has ever run."
"For the Record"
The next departure from the routine on the transparency page came in October 2004 when the Times split "For the Record" off from "Corrections." "Corrections," according to Bill Lucey's on-line chronology of the Times, would "clarify factual errors that have clouded the readers' understanding of a news topic"; "For the Record" would be reserved for "narrow corrections, such as grammatical errors, misspellings, and historical dates of reference."
I'm not sure I get it. In the paper from the day when I wrote most of this essay, Feb. 16, 2007, for example, the sole correction noted that a TV review "referred imprecisely" to Alexander Haig: "He was not convicted in the Watergate scandal, as were John Dean and Charles Colson."
Compare that to one of the eight "For the Record" entries for that date: A story about bloggers covering the Scooter Libby trial "referred imprecisely to the role of Robert A. Cox, the president of the Media Bloggers Association, in securing credentials. Mr. Cox negotiated access for his association. He did not negotiate on behalf of firedoglake.com and other blogs that received their credentials later."
The difference between the two uses of "referred imprecisely" escapes me.
Also on Feb. 16, 2007, an "Editor's Note" revealed that the contributor of a "Metropolitan Diary" entry had fabricated the item.
The latest change in the page A2 offerings is the "Reader's Guide," introduced on Sept. 20, 2006. The rationale for the changes was outlined in the May 2005 report of the Times' Credibility Group, appointed after the Jayson Blair fiasco and chaired by Allan Siegal:
We can hardly expect readers to understand the grab bag of labels we use to identify various types of articles in the paper. Many of us do not understand them either. (How does a Washington Memo differ from a White House Letter? What distinguishes News Analysis from an analytical news story? What's the difference between Critic's Notebook and TV Watch?...)
And so the changes, appearing under the headline "To Our Readers," were designed to "underscore the distinctions between straightforward news coverage and other journalistic forms that provide additional perspective on events." What followed was a capsule description of these various "journalistic forms." The one I was most eager to read was the explanation of the "News Analysis." It had never been entirely clear to me or, as far as I know, to anyone else, how these pieces, written by beat reporters, differed from op-ed columns. It still isn't: A piece labeled "News Analysis" is "a close examination of the ramifications of an important news situation. It includes thorough reporting, but also draws heavily on the expertise of the writer. The article helps the reader understand underlying causes or possible consequences of a news event, but does not reflect the writer's personal opinion."
Public Editor Byron Calame was not impressed. Calame correctly noted that the crux of the matter was "to draw a clearer line between regular articles and opinion." But I was surprised and amused to see that he initially placed so much stock in the effectiveness of ragged-right margins in distinguishing analytical and interpretive writing from straight news. "But after testing the idea on a few non-journalists, who tended to be oblivious to the ragged-right typography, I concluded that the signal will be of minimal value to many readers, if not most," Calame wrote.
Well, duh. Students in my journalism ethics class neither knew what the term ragged-right meant, nor noticed it on the page. They certainly weren't aware that one type of margin was used with one type of story and another margin style went with another type of story.
Since publishing the "Reader's Guide" last September, the Times continues to run an abridged version of it on A2 emphasizing the separateness of the news and editorial departments, and refers readers to nytimes.com/readersguide for details.
Is the Times doing a good job of enhancing its transparency? It's certainly trying. Perhaps at this still-early stage in its efforts, only four years after Jayson Blair, we might better characterize the paper as translucent.
1 An on-line chronology of the Times assembled by Bill Lucey and found at http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/nysnp/nytlucey. htm names March 4, 1983 as the roll-out date.
2 "The Times and Iraq" actually ran with the rest of the Iraq coverage on p. A10, though the Times alerted its readers to its presence in this note in the by-then customary location on A2: "The Times has reviewed its coverage of the decisions that led the United States into the war in Iraq, and especially the issue of Iraq's weapons. A discussion appears on Page A10."
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Spring 2007 (18:2), pp.6,18-19.