Comments of the Week

November 9-13, 2009

Starting today and every Friday, we will be excerpting some of the most insightful, articulate, interesting, and entertaining comments we receive each week, in a new feature aptly titled ‘Comments of the Week.’ Think we’ve missed something? Well…comment!

Straight from the Source

Greg Marx’s “When is News Fit to Print?”, about questionable sourcing employed by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in a story following up on the Fort Hood shootings, drew a response from the source-in-question himself, novelist Kamran Pasha. A heated debate ensued between Pasha and commenter James:

“[Star-Telegram reporter] Mr. Shlachter weighed my credentials as well as the content of what I reported and decided to make the broader public aware of my perspective, with specific caveats about his inability to confirm all aspects of my account. And I would have done the same. I hope that as the profession of journalism continues to evolve in a world of rapid technological change and new media connectivity, reporters will not lose the ability to trust their gut instincts to keep the public informed.”
Kamran Pasha

“With all due respect, Mr/Ms. Pasha, as a news consumer I don’t want reporters to ‘trust their gut instincts to keep the public informed.’ I want them to meet basic professional standards with respect to their sources and confirming a story and disclosure. I want them to give me, the audience, an opportunity to judge the veracity of the account myself.

“The reporter may have weighed YOUR credibility, which he did not share with his readers, but how can he weigh the credibility of your source third-hand? He cannot, can he?”

“I must fundamentally disagree with your position. If you do not believe that reporters use information that they cannot corroborate personally, then you are unaware of how journalism actually works. As others have pointed out here, investigative journalists such as Seymour Hersh have made an entire career around such reportage. The reason they are respected and not treated as gossip-mongers is that they are seen has having good judgment and an excellent track record with regard to the sources they trust….I broke the news of the relationship between Dr. Hasan and radical imam Al-Awlaki. I revealed Hasan’s anti-Semitism, comments he appeared to make only to other Muslims who he thought were sympathetic. And his support for the Taliban and suicide bombers is all relevant to his motivations. If this information is not considered news, then I don’t know what is.”
—Kamran Pasha

Pasha then continued to provide additional information about his sourcing, to which James responded:

“I very much appreciate this discussion, and thank you for coming forward with clarification about your source….[It] lends more credibility to what your source told you, and to you personally. This kind of information about the source and his motivation for speaking to you, and your personal assessment of his credibility, is exactly the point I am making. Had the reporter included some of that information to the reader, it would have been helpful initially in assessing the validity of the story. The reader of the Star-Telegram piece was not given the opportunity to read your blog post, but was expected to accept third-hand sourcing.

“I think we are making the same point in different ways: I wish more journalists had used their “gut instincts” during the buildup to the Iraq War, rather than serve as stenographers for politicians. … It is a tragedy for all of us that they chose to follow the flock and swallow other people’s opinions about what constituted proper journalism.

Meanwhile, one straight-talking reader had the guts to say what the rest of us have long been thinking:

“Mr Greg Marx - you are pathetic - more to be pitied than despised.” —Simon

Laying Odds

A Helping Hand”, our editorial for the November/December 2009 issue, provoked a host of comments about defining journalistic accountability as well as societal impediments to it. This reader offered a theoretical summary of both, though with a tad more cynicism than we typically employ:

“So, the problem isn’t whether or not to save ‘accountability journalism’ because even if you do, there’s no audience, at least on scale, to make it matter.

“Therefore, the problem is one of two things in order to garner public interest;

“1) Schools that teach critical thinking, inquiry and research, along with an analytical approach to teaching history and current events that connects dots.

“2) Developing the campaigns that will convert our plebiscite into interested, engaged, critically thinking stakeholders.

“Who wants to bet neither of those EVER happens in our lifetime? I’m giving 7 to 1 against.”

Battle Royale

On “A Bushel and a Beck” (News Meeting, Nov. 3), concerning the fine line between reporting news and deciding what makes the news, comments quickly turned into a protracted exchange between two commenters, Thimbles and Mark Richard. Here’s a sample of their sparring:

“If ‘the news’ is not to be driven by what some particular pundits or groups are talking about, then I’m afraid this judgment will swing in both directions politically. We get a lot of news that is not ‘market-driven’ in the sense of being important to most people. Two examples that immediately come to mind are environmentalism stories (environmentalism has polled poorly as a concern of voters and consumers for decades) and gay-rights stories.

There is no other explanation for the prominence given these sets of issues except that they are disproportionately important to an urban, affluent demographic, and most national-political journalists live and/or work in urban, affluent neighborhoods….Environmental issues poll poorly in comparison with other issues and have for decades. A quick check of a Pew poll on this topic from January 2009 showed ‘environmentalism’ rating 16th out of 20 named issues (three spaces behind ‘moral decline’).”
—Mark Richard

“Seriously? You think everything has been okay with the environment and that that environmentalists are some doom saying cult who don’t have the science to back themselves up way more often than not? Geez…Let’s go to the report you base your claims on…The interesting data is below that where they show historical trends and what they say is that in 2001, the environment was a top priority for 63% of poll respondents, which fell sharply for a couple of years for obvious reasons after 2001. In 2006, it bounced back because of post Katrina discussions and increased awareness of environmental imbalance…You used the figures in a crisis to infer a historical pattern that doesn’t exist.”

See the rest of the exchange here.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

In “Trash Compactor” (Megan Garber, November 10), Garber looked at The New York Times’s crowd-funded report on a patch of garbage in the Pacific—and wondered whether the piece’s funders got what they paid for. David “Digidave” Cohn, the founder of, the Web site that partially funded the piece, was quick to respond to Garber’s criticisms:

“I appreciate the critique - but I also think it’s a bit misplaced.

“1. Sorry we didn’t win a Pulitzer. How many do you have?

“2. You obviously didn’t follow or read any of her blog posts along the way. Lindsey sent back numerous photos, blog posts and more while on the ship and since she has gotten back. A lot of the depth and human connection you are looking for are probably there. The NY Times limited the amount of space allocated for her reporting. She probably could have (and wanted to) write a 2,000 long form article. But that was for the Times to determine. But Lindsey did MORE reporting than what was shown on the Times piece. Did you check out the links we published on Spot.Us? Or did you even bother to email me to find out if there was more content?

“3. The editorial was handeled by the Times not Spot.Us. We actually aren’t responsible for that. So if you are trying to pick a specific Times article and say that it sucked - that’s fine. But that itself is also not newsworthy. I’m sure there are 100 or so blog posts like this every day.” —David Cohn

Others were more appreciative of Garber’s piece:

“Megan’s piece focuses on a story published in the New York Times. By my lights, that story deserves to be criticized, and I think Megan’s subhed catches the tone well:

(1) It’s an NYT story.

(2) delivered it.

(3) It’s disappointing.

“And, yes, as the piece winds down, Megan expands its scope in order to make a point that Hoshaw has elsewhere put on offer more material that offers a fuller look at the subject. Megan links to it and encourages the reader to check it out.

“But good journalism *elsewhere* doesn’t explain lackluster journalism *here*. And here—the NYT’s story—is the subject of the piece, which I quite agree with.

“Megan seems now, at about 7:30pm ET, to have made an amendment to her story, noting higher up that Hoshaw’s blog has been “compelling and personal and picture-filled and information-packed.” It’s my opinion that the amendment improves her piece, which was very good to start.”
—Josh Young

“I’d agree with the Review’s criticism that Hoshaw’s piece — while informative — lacked depth, but I’m more tempted to blame the NYT’s space limits. The article doesn’t even crack 900 words and reads as though it were heavily edited, either by the writer herself or by the Times’ editors. I wonder if the writer submitted a longer story or if she pared down her own piece. If the latter, it might suggest: (1) the piece deserved more space or placement in the NYT mag, or (2) that funders of community-sponsored journalism may underestimate the skills that some on-staff reporters bring to crafting a taut, under-1000-word story.”
—Barbara Drake

“I know that the blog was the major, guaranteed outcome and all, and I commend Lindsay for that. But I wonder: If a venue like NYT were not in the pitch and the final product was only the blog, would Spot.Us have managed to raise thousands of dollars? (On the other hand, if some random journalist had access to the expedition, but was not affiliated with Spot.Us, would the New York Times have bought the story? Would the NYT have been the outlet they pitched in the first place? These are questions I think about as a freelancer who tends to do science and environmental stuff, and also has to wrestle with funding and expenses.)

“I happen to believe projects like this deserve funding simply because I think other venues, including someone’s blog, can be legitimate outlets. But I hesitate when Kerry writes that getting this in the Times is a “major achievement.” An achievement how? In terms of trimming weeks of reporting and interesting science and ocean adventure into some 900 words? (This CJR piece is called “Trash Compactor,” after all.) Or in terms of raising visibility for Spot.Us?”
—Timothy Lesle

And an oceanographer offered what was perhaps the most substantive critique of them all:

“I am the chief scientist for the SEAPLEX expedition, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography cruise that visited the gyre this summer. (We were not mentioned in the piece, but that big green net credited to Mario Aguilera is our photo.) I have to say that I agree with the bulk of Megan Garber’s criticism of Hoshaw’s NYT piece - there was little new material that had not previously been covered in other pieces on Charles Moore and the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.

“Additionally, this article misrepresented the science, presenting broad estimates & conjecture as facts. A few examples: there is not enough data to say exactly how large (“twice the size of Texas”) or what the growth rate of the patch (“doubling every 10 years”) might be. There is not enough evidence to say that all five major gyres are accumulating plastic - just measurements from two of them (North Atlantic and North Pacific). We do not know if a) significant numbers or important species of fish are ingesting plastic b) if toxins are then passed from plastic to fish and c) if these toxins from plastic then go up the food chain to humans. (I am happy to provide relevant citations upon request.)

“I think this issue is in desperate need of a critical investigative reporter’s eye. Is plastic really having an impact on oceanic ecosystems or is it just ugly? What about all the current research on ways to clean it up? Are they plausible? I was hoping that Hoshaw would be that voice. Unfortunately, from a science perspective, this NYT piece is deeply disappointing.”
—Miriam Goldstein

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Sara Germano is an intern at CJR.