More about the New York Times (and Journalism Generally)

The New York Times has been part of my life for as long as I can remember.  I grew up in New York City and my family got the Times delivered every day.  On Sundays, we would spend a good part of the morning divvying up and trading the sections of paper during breakfast.  (Kids, this was before the internet.  Gosh, at that time, they had just invented the light bulb.)  I now subscribe to the Times and I check it online several times a day.  As a concerned citizen, it is an important part of my life that I really appreciate.

So it pains me to feel as I described in my post about the Times’s series on arbitration.  My concerns were reinforced by a recent post by the paper’s public editor describing similar patterns of journalistic errors in their exposé of working conditions at nail salons.

We certainly need independent and thorough investigations of many problems in society, including working conditions in modern equivalents of blue-collar and white-collar sweatshops as well as adhesion contract arbitration, among many other things.

Unfortunately, few news organizations seem to undertake serious investigations of important issues like these.  Too much news coverage focuses on trivial issues and employs problematic journalistic judgments, in my view.  To the Times’s credit, they have a public editor who publicly critiques their coverage, which also seems to be a rarity in the news media.

Given all this, it is especially disappointing that there is a pattern of reporting in the Times where the stories seem to overreach the evidence as described in my prior post.  Especially when news organizations conduct investigations of powerful interests, they should expect pushback by the subjects of the investigations.  To maintain their credibility, it is essential that they scrupulously use proper investigative methods and report their findings fairly.

I think of analogs in various things like obligations of scholars, especially empirical researchers, to use good research methods and anchor their conclusions closely to the evidence.  Research on procedural justice suggests that people’s assessment of the outcome of processes is affected by their perception of the fairness of procedures.  And when lawyers act as advocates, they are less effective when others think that they are manipulating the facts and therefore don’t trust them.

I am not a journalism expert and I don’t know what the NYT reporters and editors were thinking when they produced these reports.  I wonder if they felt that people wouldn’t pay attention if they didn’t paint stark portraits of wrongdoing.  Or perhaps they fell prey to common cognitive biases that blinded them to problems in their reporting.  In any case, I believe that they have squandered some their most precious resource – their readers’ trust.  As the Times’s public editor wrote, it “must protect its reputation for accuracy and rigor above all.”

Although I have particularly focused on the NYT, an article by my colleagues Bob Bailey and Rafael Gely, along with Gil Vernon, past president of the National Academy of Arbitrators, describes a database of news articles about arbitration and found some common problems in news reports:

Arbitrators were described not as neutrals, but more as advocates for labor unions or for employers.  Some descriptions suggested that the process itself was less than intellectually rigorous with arbitrations being described as “splitting the difference” without giving much thought to the matter.  Little attention was given to the context of the dispute, such as the terms of the agreement that labor arbitrators were being asked to interpret.  And seldom was a distinction made between different types of arbitration.  (P. 19)

I realize that journalists face many challenges in doing a difficult job in a competitive media environment.  We are in a period when many of our leaders (and would-be leaders) seem comfortable misrepresenting and being disingenuous about very significant matters.  In our complex and dangerous world, evidence and truth are really important.  So we need to rely on news media to play a critical role in society.

While journalistic problems are not limited to the NYT, its pre-eminent role in American journalism makes it especially important that it does a good, fair job.

Hopefully, their editors will institute better journalistic practices and regain lost trust of people like me who really value their work.  This is critically important so that instead of getting diverted by issues of journalistic methods, we can focus on real serious problems like those described in the arbitration series.

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