Conflict and Coverage; Times’ integrity mired by readers

The New York Times has been blasted for errors, mistakes, bias and every other imaginable offense journalism ethics professors teach on day one. I’ve slowly started to agree with the accusers. After reading about the Times’ coverage of Israel and Palestinians by Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, I’m both heartened and disturbed further by their professionalism. I’m also more certain some fault rests with the toxicity of the criticizers.

Whether one word, an entire sentence or a single letter – every keystroke by a Times editor has the power to shape the opinion of countless real life people. The weight of that decision and the difficulty of making it is the job, and at least one or two readers must wonder what goes through an editor’s head before finalizing copy for print. As Sullivan details, their decision will bring hordes of indomitable opinions raging in from across the cosmos – and knowing they will always upset someone is more stressful that it looks from the outside.

Journalism is tough, and for once I write that with no sarcasm. I’m constantly upset with how people touting themselves as journalists blur news and opinion, or allow the most egregious mistakes to be major news. There is no justifying some headline mistakes, whether deliberate or accidental. Worse yet, repeated mistakes pave a slippery slope for the news train. People are all too willing to strap on their skies for runs through another #GazaUnderAttack debacle. When the most-used social media platforms become flooded with inaccuracies, propaganda and doctored photos, how can anyone be expected to know the facts surrounding any issue?

Context is an elusive mistress. It’s tough to fit into 240 characters, and another profession entirely for photos (no, Instagram hasn’t trained a single photographer). It can also detract or suggest an opinion when you have a selection of narratives to choose from. And with enough repetition, that context update becomes the publication’s stigmata.

This has been the trend all year, especially during the summer op. It was common to read citation of same recent events again and again for weeks. Sometimes with a slight flourish to hide the stitch marks from cutting it out of previous articles, but always lurking. There comes a point when a story feels less relevant, following the 38th time in a week that I read the names of three students killed while hitchhiking, and I could ID a publication by its context.

But that’s just it – maybe the next person to click on that story hadn’t read those names over and over, and they get the idea to dig a little deeper and learn just a little bit more. With 14 million followers, I imagine this or a similar scenario has played out a time or ten. With more voices in this issue than votes in the past U.S. national election, I imagine the demographic would shatter Gallup’s wettest dream. It’s a lot of people, on an issue where a disagreement or single mistake can be an attack on an entire culture, religion or state.

As Sullivan delved into elements of bias and credibility the Times has been under attack for, it became ever apparent to me how pressured the editors must be. If the forums weren’t moderated, #NYTimesUnderFire would have taken off before Twitter even existed and 4 Chan’s /b/ would be considered tame. Indeed, Sullivan quotes their top editor of international news, who said their editors have become sensitized to the event.

And there it is. My biggest gripe with news; letting readers drive content. That moment when an editor makes a change to appease a reader, an administrator, or a government – news is no longer served. This highlights the toll the “hundreds of emails” Sullivan referred to, which is probably par for the office. Yet the decision of who to piss off will continue, and it’s up to their editors’ moral and journalistic integrity to do their job, irrespective of that consequence, or to find a new desk.

They literally can’t win, but that’s the point with news, and the most redeeming moment for the entire Times editorial staff came in Sullivan’s final thoughts:

The Times will never satisfy everyone with its coverage of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict — no more than I can satisfy everyone (or even anyone) with this column. But that should not be the goal.” (She’s correct. I’m not satisfied with how she used the word “over” to replace “during,” in the column.)

Whether Sullivan and her many colleagues will choose to do what is ‘right’ is an entirely different discussion, but that’s definitely a worthwhile place to start.


About the Author
Bill Crotty was a 20-something guy just learnin' how to Israel. He lived in several small towns and kibbutzim across the Western Galil for a year in 2013-2014. Then in 2016 he returned to Israel, for a year of work in Jerusalem with the JDC and CIMI.
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