NYT Gives a (Very Reluctant) Kudos to Al Jazeera

And the award for coverage of the Haitian cholera epidemic goes to …

No, not The New York Times, nor The Washington Post, nor even the Miami Herald.

No it goes to Al Jazeera, the news organization that found the cause of the epidemic and told the world about it.*

Al Jazeera, the Arab world’s version of our AP broadcast, is like an upstart intruder, trying to build a reputation in the self-denominated land of the free press. Last December, Al Jazeera won a DuPont Award for its “uncompromising look at the shortcomings of international aid and peacekeeping in Haiti … after the devastating earthquake” and for “reminding the world that the survivors still face urgent crises.”

How did the New York reading public come to learn lately of Al Jazeera’s journalistic coup?

The information was offered in an April 1, front-page Times report headlined “In Haiti, Global Failures on a Cholera Epidemic.”

More than halfway down into the 6,000-word article, Times writer Deborah Sontag noted that back on Oct. 27, 2010, Al Jazeera took film of the cholera epidemic’s source.

It was an area where UN peacekeepers from Nepal kept their septic tanks. After Al Jazeera broadcast its report, which was followed by other reports, it became increasingly clear to experts that the epidemic originated in Nepal.

One might reasonably expect that if a paper is publishing a 6,000-word article on an epidemic, the person or organization that discovered the epidemic might be mentioned high in the piece, rather than 3,000 words down into it. On a matter of such import, to Haiti and to journalism, the bold and very impactful work of Al Jazeera should merit more than a brief paragraph in a 6000-word story. [Update: Not to mention the work of the Associated Press. See the end of this piece for more.]

But as a 30-year veteran of American newspapers I know that journalistic kudoses are typically reserved for buddies and kindred thinkers, not rivals and those who challenge your assumptions. Op-Ed columnists give prominent credit to Times colleagues whenever they can, it seems to me. But the Times and other papers are nowhere near as quick to credit rival outlets when they get a scoop.

Al Jazeera wasn’t the only entity that got short shrift in the Times story. Cuba is the nation that has worked most strenuously to contain the Haitian cholera epidemic. But Cuba, still formally a Communist state and reluctant to let Times reporters into its country, was not credited by the Times until pretty close to the end of the long story:

“The Cubans alone, who claimed in a report that without their help ‘another 1,000 Haitians would have died at Haitian Health Ministry institutions,’ dispensed antibiotics to all cholera patients and preventively to their relatives.”

Consider yourself recognized, Cuba.

Such problems of downplaying credit are due, generally, to unwritten editorial restrictions, most notably at MSM papers where opaqueness rather than transparency are the rule. A reporter, in other words, after years of working at a publication, intuits what’s going to be yanked from a story and what’s going to be rearranged. And so that silent voices says to them as they’re writing, “Hey, choose your battles wisely and go with the flow.”

And let’s be clear about something. Sontag, the Times reporter who did this far-ranging update on the Haitian cholera epidemic, is a wonderful, principled journalist who has covered Haiti devotedly for years.

Having followed her for years, I suspect that Sontag would agree with my complaints here—theoretically at least.

This pickiness of mine is a screwface that’s moving to front rows of the mass reading room. Seasoned readers today see between-the-lines words once thought to be invisible. And, increasingly, those characters left out of big media stories are able to strut the stages of the blogosphere and of potentially viral three-minute videos.

Who knows? Maybe one day there will be a reawakening at the Times, and at other big papers, so that the biases of their editors and publishers are on display for the world to see. The result will be a transparency that can only make the exchange between news conveyors and consumers more open and, inevitably, more honest.

*Update: We should note that the Associated Press was also there on October 27, 2010; in fact, the wire service got the story of the Haitian cholera epidemic slightly before Al Jazeera did. What’s more, the AP continued to cover the story, running numerous follow-up reports, including an important piece from November 19, 2010 investigating whether UN peacekeepers brought cholera to Haiti. If Al Jazeera deserves to be recognized by other outlets for its excellent coverage of the epidemic, then the AP certainly does, as well.

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Ron Howell is an associate professor of journalism at Brooklyn College. A former reporter for Newsday, The New York Daily News, the Associated Press, and the (late) Baltimore Evening Sun, he has spent much of his career covering Latin America and the Caribbean. Tags: , , , , ,