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How to Corrupt Editorial Integrity

Posted on Wednesday, July 30, 2014 at 11:19 PM

A recent New York Times fiasco is a blueprint for trashing integrity. It offers a good lesson on what not to do if you want to maintain high standards.

By William Dunkerley

On April 20, the New York Times splashed the headline, "Ukraine Provides Evidence of Russian Military in Civil Unrest." The article presented an array of photos showing soldiers in various situations. A caption attested to the claim made in the headline. Accompanying text said that "the State Department, which has also alleged Russian interference, says that the Ukrainian evidence is convincing." State Department officials disseminated the photos publicly.

Journalists Andrew Higgins, Michael R. Gordon, and Andrew E. Kramer repeated those allegations in a bylined story on the same day. A version of their story ran on page 1 of the paper's April 21 New York edition.

Just days later, the paper printed a retraction of sorts.

What was wrong with the story? What went wrong at the Times? And how is editorial integrity at stake here?

Covering Hot News

The crisis in Ukraine has been in the news for some time now. Coverage was punctuated in July by stories of the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. So it is not surprising that the Times had been hot on the story for some time.

Back in April I viewed the Times' photo array with great interest. Proof that Russia was playing an active military role in Ukraine's civil war sounded like a big deal.

The Times' story presented two shots of a bearded man in military garb. The caption identified him as a Russian military operative seen in the 2008 conflict between Georgia and Russia, and also spotted in Ukraine this year.

But as I looked closely at the two blurry photos alleged to be of the same man, I saw something different. They looked to me like two different men. What could explain that discrepancy?

To get to the bottom of this, I clipped both blurry images and entered them into Google's "search by image" function. That instantly located much higher-resolution images of both bearded men. And clearly the photos were not of the same man. The two people didn't resemble each other at all. Even the beards were dissimilar.

Yet the Times was attesting that this was the same man in two different military conflicts, and that this was proof of a startling conclusion about foreign interference in Ukraine's civil war.

Power of the Press

Even though the photographic basis for this story was obviously suspect, a lot of readers trusted the Times and believed the story. Here are a few reader comments posted on the Times' website:

--"It is good to see hard evidence showing up for what we always knew was going on in eastern Ukraine."
--"I trust that no one is surprised by this, save for the usual pro-Putin/pro-Russia propagandists, that is."
--"It's time to demonstrate to the Kremlin -- and the Russian people -- that such a divergence from global norms has significant costs."

But not everyone fell for the fake story. There were skeptical comments as well. Here are a few examples:

--"Those photos look as convincing as the satellite shots of Iraq's WMD that the CIA presented just before the invasion."
--"Whether or not Russian operatives are in Ukraine, this evidence is a joke."
--"One of them could have been Santa if he changed his outfit and dyed his beard."

A Retraction?

The skeptics must have made quite an impression with someone, because on April 24 a piece appeared from Margaret Sullivan, the paper's "public editor." It was titled, "Aftermath of Ukraine Photo Story Shows Need for More Caution." That sounds like quite an understatement!

Ms. Sullivan was quick to comment that the photos had been "endorsed by the Obama administration." But, she added, "More recently, some of those grainy photographs have been discredited."

So, after being caught prominently running a phony story, the Times sought to shed blame by pointing a finger at the Obama administration and fingering the "grainy photographs."

But what about the Times' responsibility as a watchdog against government malfeasance and misinformation? The dog must have died. And what about journalists Higgins, Gordon, and Kramer? They are experienced journalists. Why did they sully their reputations by putting their names on a garbage story out of Washington?

Where were the Times' fact checkers? It took me less than five minutes to determine that the photos attested to by the State Department were fraudulent. Getting high-resolution images to clarify the "grainy photographs" required no more than a series of mouse clicks.

And what about the Times' foreign editor, Joseph Kahn? Actually, Sullivan gave him a chance to speak for himself in her article. She says he told her that "the Times has made a major commitment to covering the Russia-Ukraine story over the past several months, using as many as 12 staff reporters, many of them on the ground. He calls the coverage 'voluminous, competitive, and excellent.'" Isn't that incredible? The paper makes a public arse of itself and Kahn calls his team's work excellent?

Kahn hinted that the Times, in running the phony story, "was not entirely dependent for its conclusions on the photographs, but also included other reporting that led to similar conclusions." But why did he run the faked photos?

So Kahn published the rigged photos without remarking upon their inauthenticity, and he expects us to believe whatever other reporting they may have done? The story was about the photos. That's what the headline said. But he didn't mention that the photos were fraudulent.

And what did Sullivan, the paper's internal watchdog, say about all this? She concluded that the "coverage of this crisis has had much to commend it" but that the story in question "was displayed too prominently and questioned too lightly."

What the Photos Proved

The photos published by the Times may not have proved that a Russian soldier seen in the Georgian conflict was recently seen in Ukraine. But the photos did prove a few things:

--The Times didn't check its facts. It could easily have found the photos to be fakes.

--The Times relied upon a single noncombatant source, the State Department, to validate the photos and attendant conclusions. It's no secret that governments lie. That's why the media are expected to serve as watchdogs to offset government lies and malfeasance, and to promote better governance. As a result, we are given First Amendment protection and are often referred to as the Fourth Estate.

--The bearded men episode also proved that, when confronted by others with the photographic discrepancy, the Times couldn't bring itself to simply fess up to what it had been caught doing. Instead it obfuscated, equivocated, and congratulated itself.

That's perhaps the Times' biggest offense. The editors seem to believe they are above plain accountability. That leaves them free to repeat lies and mislead their readers, yet feel no unmitigated guilt. In other words, they seem to have no integrity.

For the Rest of Us...

Not all of us cover world news. Some of us do carry articles that rely upon governmental sources. But we all have readers who rely upon us to provide them with true and reliable information.

That's what sets us apart as branded publications. There is a host of information available on the Internet. Some of it is reliable. Some is not. It can be burdensome for information seekers to evaluate the veracity of any particular source that is not well known to them.

The name of our publication -- our brand -- is what sets us apart from the plethora of websites competing with us to satisfy readers' demands for information. If we fail in our responsibility to readers, we lose our edge and we lose our integrity.

In a sense, we're all in this together. More and more, information seekers are abandoning branded publications in favor of simply searching the Web for whatever information they happen to need at the moment.

Upholding the notion that publication brands signify reliability is important to our industry as a whole. When such a well-known brand as the New York Times shows remarkable indifference to accuracy and accountability, it hurts us all.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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"The most embarrassing thing about this is that a plethora of evidence exists of Russian involvement. The Times' reporters are just too lazy or gutless to find it." --Sergey Panasenko, Moscow, Russia

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