Carrying the Facts Too Far

Views from readers, responses from the staff and thoughts from the public editor.

Comments: 18

  1. The article on colony collapse disorder led some readers to conclude that the Times was carrying water for the pesticide industry. That is unfortunate.

  2. Mr. Fackler's characterization of Japan as little more than an afterthought was made clearly from the POV of an economic superpower such as the United States or Germany. No rational reader would have understood it to mean that Japan has fallen to the bottom of the world's economic totem pole.

    The readers quoted in this article are clearly confused about the business in which the New York Times engages. NYT is a company that sells newspapers, nothing more and nothing less. Its news must be factual, but puffery is well within its editorial discretion. NYT is certainly at the top of its class, but its business is different from that of, say, Royal Academy of Science. Erratas are common in this business, and no court in the United States will require newspapers to be accurate to the nth degree to avoid, for example, defamation.

    Who is to decide how far is too far? There is no absolute standard and perhaps there shouldn't be one. Instead, readers and sponsors vote with their dollars and clicks.

    Finally, NYT publishes what it deems to be newsworthy. Sure, it may display poor taste once in a while (such as the video story about capes in today's Style column - every woman in the video has a grotesquely large head, looking quite deformed!). But, unlike the Somerset House, it is under no obligation to cover any marriage or death or anything at all.

  3. As someone currently living in Japan for a year, I would like to echo Mr. Wilson's complaint about Martin Fackler's Oct 17 article “The Great Deflation: Japan Goes From Dynamic to Disheartened.” I was particularly disappointed by the miserably misleading metonymy in the article, stories of 10 yen vending machines, 100 yen first months of apartment rent, and 100 yen days at the market where you can presumably buy anything you could want for approximately $1. While I assume these stories to be true, they in no way even approximate the world I see around me here in the same region of Japan as Osaka where the article was written; vending machines sell soda for approximately $1.50, my monthly rent is $500 for a small apartment and my first month cost three times that, and while 100 yen stores exist everywhere in Japan, their existence depends on individualized packaging (selling each fork and spoon individually for example) and cheap manufacturing from nearby neighbors like China. So while, yes, those stories might have been true, some acknowledgement of their uniqueness or some balancing examples would make the article a much more fair representation of the current state of Japan. And of course, I'd be happy to know where you found that restaurant with 50 yen ($0.60) beer. That might just be worth the $20, one-way, hour-and-a-half train ride.

  4. "I think it is quite fair and accurate to describe the Japan of today as an afterthought. Sure, Japan is still competitive and remains at least the third largest economy in the world. But when was the last time the Japanese economy was a source of anxiety in Washington or anywhere else, other than for its pitiful performance?"

    I don't have a personal problem with Japan, but I suspect there are several hundred thousand, former, employees of Chrysler, Ford and General Motors who would be offended by your comment. Japan's economic performance was "pitiful" but it still crushed their employers?

    If I had written your your comment I would consider an apology to the, former, workers of the, former, "big three", but for some reason or other I don't expect one from you.

  5. In my family we were taught that having one's nuptials described (or even mentioned) in a public newspaper is tasteless and classless, regardless of one's educational creds or social standing. The kids occasionally read one or two that seem giggle-worthy.

  6. What are the facts that would be carried too far?

    1. Why does any article which is not to be accompanied by a Readers' Comments section ever appear on the op-ed page.

    2. What reader wouldn't stand to be better informed if all readers had access to an application that enabled them to comment directly to other readers' comments?

    But back to those writings that can't be complemented by anything the reader might have to say: In 2010, such 'opinions' would have about them less the smell of Marie Antoinette, more the smell of Nicolae Ceausescu.

  7. With the US close to essential bankruptcy, the thought of comparing Japan to the US economy seems farcical. The US economy is fast approaching ruination while the Chinese steamroll along. Instead of worrying about Japan's place in the economic pecking order, Americans ought to demonstrate some understanding as to how fouled our own nest has become.

  8. “Complaints about overstatement by reporters and headline writers come to me frequently from people who are extremely close readers of the paper. Many of these, like Times readers in general, are highly educated and bring very high expectations. Their complaints often seem to carry the thought: New York Times, you are the last bastion of reliable daily journalism; do not fail me now.”

    Hurrah for such NYTimes readers. A concern is that there are not enough of them (us) to financially support the NYTimes. What then?

    As a novice beekeeper, I appreciated reading about Jason Hodin’s response to the article mistakenly headlined “With Scientists, Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery.” Thanks, Jason, I knew that it wasn’t really so and I appreciate that some readers do more than just place their comments in the allotted comment section of an article.

    Re comments, what are the criteria for deciding what articles accommodate on-line comments and how many comments can be received before closing? I was ready to comment on recent on-line articles about the seriousness of football injuries, but found them comment-less.

  9. As Japan ages the nation has redefined itself and returned to the conservative politics that made it a world power. In the end will come out stronger.

    America would do well to learn this lesson and forget the foolishness of spending our way out of a recession.

  10. Cricton's comment that "... it spurred American business to improve its quality and competitiveness.." is way off base.

    American, and most multi-national, business simply shifted to the lowest possible cost manufacturers with good legal protection against beins sued for poor quality and defective products.

    The U.S. has been flooded with millions of poor quality and unsafe products including sheetrock, tootpase, prescription medications, tires, seafood, and electronics. When one bad manufacturer is found the Chinese government and the U.S. and multi-national corporations simply shift to another Chinese manufacturing company.

  11. I'm glad the public editor published the concerns about the reporting on Japan's economic status and the bee colony problem; I had the same concerns for the same reasons when I read those two articles. And I feel similar concerns when I read more and more articles in the Times where it appears to me the reporter is trying to impress us by being cute or snide or (often mistakenly) brilliant instead of factually well-informed and articulate.

  12. @Adrian from San Francisco

    I appreciate the clarity of his comment and it's useful to read an opposing point of view.

    I do not agree, however, that "NYT is a company that sells newspapers, nothing more and nothing less." Companies that make up the media are not simply like other companies. This view carries the notion that capitalism rules all spheres too far.

    The media are given certain special rights, enshrined in the constitution, and that also gives them certain special responsibilities. Media companies are not just like any company that makes widgets and facts are more than just another commodity to be sold. Treating the facts as more than just another commodity is one of the special responsibilities that media companies have.

    It is true that media companies have often failed in their responsibility to be fair and factual (as well as having a point of view.) But that does not mean that we shouldn't hold them to a high standard.

  13. Are headline writers fired when their work for a featured article is deemed misconstrued? Or is it that they are overworked and that they are only given seconds to peruse an article before spewing out three or four possible headlines? I have no idea.

    My suggestion: Let the author (whose reputation rests on the integrity of the article) offer three or four suggested headlines. Whenever an editor replaces those suggestions with one of his/her own, the fallout rest exclusively on the latter. In any enterprise there is a tendency to justify one's existence by fiddling with the fundamental work of those "below" in the institutional pecking order. There should be real consequences for doing so.

    If the editorial mandate is to improve the piece and if the editors are as expert in their own jobs as the writers themselves, this will work out nicely. (See any Hollywood movies from the thirties.) However, if headline writers are regarded internally as "wannabees" and journalistic hacks by the writers, something is seriously wrong in Oz.

  14. I've been curious for a long time about the relationship between the author of an article and the writing of the headline. Are authors ever given the opportunity to comment on the headline? If yes, how is this decision made, and if not, why not?

  15. I agree with Harold (commenter #1) regarding the pesticide link and its glaring absence from the Times' article. Even worse was that the link of the lead researcher to Bayer was not mentioned.

    What troubles me even more right now, though, is that I expressed these concerns to the Public Editor within hours of the publication of the article and neither point is mentioned in his response. Why is that, sir?

  16. The issue with the colony collapse disorder article points to a recurrent problem with an easy solution: give writers an opportunity to veto, or at the very least to raise objections to, the headlines that are imposed on their stories and columns. It often seems that letters to the editors respond more to the headlines than to the stories/columns themselves.

    In an ideal world, one we will never see in this lifetime, newspapers would print the names of the headline writers, to make it obvious to all but the most obtuse readers that headline writer and article writer are not one.

  17. Fackler's article included examples of people shifting their focus away from Japan, and the word "afterthought" was accurate and appropriate in that context. Even if one reads the word differently than I do, going from there to "The Times continues to write stories that emphasize drama and emotive writing" is quite a stretch. Please, reporters and editors, don't let this silly scolding scare you away from vivid language, and please, public editor, try to be less picky.

  18. The articles cited by readers -- and, unfortunately, many of the stories carried as "news", not only in the NYT but in virtually all major newspapers -- are replete with hyperbole, and that is the antithesis of unbiased reporting. I would want a policy of blue penciling any adjective that is not solely factually descriptive. A sky may be "hazy" and that is a direct description; to say it is "polluted" without supporting evidence is opinion.

    Eliminate all opinion or interpretation based statements; they belong on the editorial page or in opinion pieces.

    As a specific example: How about a count of the number of times the word "chemical" in NYT reports was and was not preceded by "toxic", "carcinogenic", "harmful", or other such words? None of them are factual; all depend upon context and volume of exposure, and almost never does the context or exposure justify the adjective used.

    By way of background: My software house -- and I personally -- created what was for many years the definitive online (pre-Internet) source of chemical and biochemical data, The NIH/EPA Chemical Information System. My direct interaction with biochemists and toxicologist during that activity is what led me to the conclusions regarding reporters' eagerness to exaggerate expressed above.