Shameful Obstinacy at The Sunday Times

Paper finally retracts Amazongate, aggressive-blondes articles

On Wednesday, I argued that the mounting rebuttal of the recent controversies related to the so-called “Climategate” e-mails and alleged errors in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) landmark 2007 report deserves more high-profile coverage.

One piece of evidence that I did not mention was The Sunday Times’s recent retraction of article published in January, which set off the whole “Amazongate” meme. The article, which has not been removed from the paper’s Web site, reported that the climate panel’s 2007 finding that 40 percent of the Amazon could be sensitive to changes in rainfall was “unsubstantiated.” In its retraction notice, the Times explained:

The IPCC had referenced the claim to a report prepared for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) by Andrew Rowell and Peter Moore, whom the article described as “green campaigners” with “little scientific expertise.” The article also stated that the authors’ research had been based on a scientific paper that dealt with the impact of human activity rather than climate change.

In fact, the IPCC’s Amazon statement is supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence. In the case of the WWF report, the figure had, in error, not been referenced, but was based on research by the respected Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) which did relate to the impact of climate change. We also understand and accept that Mr Rowell is an experienced environmental journalist and that Dr Moore is an expert in forest management, and apologise for any suggestion to the contrary.

The retraction of the article, by Jonathan Leake, drew fairly widespread coverage on mainstream media blogs, with posts at Newsweek, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, among other sites. A second—and admittedly far less consequential—retraction by The Sunday Times received scant attention, however.

A little more than a week before the IPCC story, the Times published an article headlined, “Blonde women born to be warrior princesses.” The piece badly mischaracterized the research of Dr. Aaron Sell, whose work found a correlation between attractiveness and anger, but said absolutely nothing about hair color. That article has now been removed from the paper’s Web site as well. A number of questions remain unanswered, however.

Following the IPCC/Amazon and blondes articles, CJR and many other commentators pointed out the Times did not seem to have its stories straight. Yet despite ample evidence to that effect, the Times resisted taking action until scientists misrepresented in the articles took their grievances to the U.K.’s Press Complaints Commission (PCC), an independent arbiter of such matters with no real parallel in the United States. In the case of the blondes article, Sell immediately requested that the Times correct its representation of his work and approached the PCC when he got no response. Likewise, in the case of the IPCC/Amazon article, Dr. Simon Lewis, an expert on climate change’s impacts on tropical forests, whose views were badly misrepresented in the piece, also went to the PCC (his letter of complaint letter is here) after requests for correction amounted to naught. In its retraction notice, the Times apologized to Lewis:

We accept that, in his quoted remarks, Dr Lewis was making the general point that both the IPCC and WWF should have cited the appropriate peer-reviewed scientific research literature. As he made clear to us at the time, including by sending us some of the research literature, Dr Lewis does not dispute the scientific basis for both the IPCC and the WWF reports’ statements on the potential vulnerability of the Amazon rainforest to droughts caused by climate change.

In addition, the article stated that Dr Lewis’ concern at the IPCC’s use of reports by environmental campaign groups related to the prospect of those reports being biased in their conclusions. We accept that Dr Lewis holds no such view – rather, he was concerned that the use of non-peer-reviewed sources risks creating the perception of bias and unnecessary controversy, which is unhelpful in advancing the public’s understanding of the science of climate change. A version of our article that had been checked with Dr Lewis underwent significant late editing and so did not give a fair or accurate account of his views on these points. We apologise for this.

While it is nice to see the Times apologize for its mistakes, this still did does not explain exactly what the hell happened in its newsroom. I sent Bob Tyrer, the paper’s ombudsman, an e-mail asking why the Times had deleted a comment Lewis posted on Leake’s story criticizing the article; why it failed to run a letter to the editor that Lewis wrote expressing the same frustrations; and why Leake’s story was re-written at the last minute to include points that the paper knew to be patently false.

“These complaints were resolved through the PCC, resulting in the correction that we published on June 20 and the removal of the article from our website,” Tyrer wrote in an e-mail. “The contents of the correction were approved by all three complainants. It would be inappropriate to reopen this matter by making any further comment.”

Not that there ever was an appropriate time, of course. Back in February, when I asked Tyrer about Sell’s complaints about the aggressive-blondes article, he replied, “The PCC has quasi-judicial status in the UK, and anything pertinent that disputants say may become evidence. In the circumstances, with great respect to you and the Columbia Journalism Review, I have to confine myself to answering only the questions that the PCC may put to The Sunday Times.” In other words, in Tyrer’s opinion, discussing mistakes is inappropriate before, during, and after a PCC inquiry.

Obviously, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for transparency (something you’d expect a newsroom would value), so I tried a more general approach with Tyrer, asking why the Times did not react more quickly in terms of publishing a correction, for which there seemed to be ample evidence; whether or not it is common practice to let such grievances go to the PCC before taking action; whether or not two full story retractions in half a year seemed like a lot to him or indicated an editorial problem at the Times; and, finally, what Times was doing to address the errors in-house and ensure that similar mistakes don’t happen again. Tyer’s disappointing (if not negligent) reply: “I have nothing to add.”

Thankfully, a spokesperson for the PCC (who asked not be named since complaints officers don’t usually comment in an individual capacity) was more candid. Asked whether the Times had acted quickly enough to correct its work and whether or not two full retractions was unusual, the source replied:

As a complaints officer, I deal with those complaints which come across my desk, so I do not necessarily see a representative sample of all complaints received. In general, though, I would not say I have seen evidence of any established problem with the reporting of science in The Sunday Times (possibly it reports more scientific issues than some other newspapers, which might lead to a proportionately larger number of complaints?) – this strikes me as most likely a simple instance of two similar cases happening to occur within a short time period.

We do expect newspapers to engage directly with complaints they receive, but it is precisely in order to deal with situations where complainants are not satisfied with a newspaper’s response that the PCC exists.

In terms of how we deal with complaints, it is a central tenet of the Editor’s Code of Practice that newspapers have the right to take polemical and partisan positions on all issues of public debate, including scientific issues, so long as they distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. Where it is clear that the newspaper’s account of the facts of the matter was inaccurate, we would, of course, expect the newspaper to correct it as soon as possible.

However, there can often be a genuine clash of perspective between scientist and journalist as to what constitutes the facts of the science and what constitutes interpretation of them; or, there can be misunderstanding between the scientist and the journalist as to what angle and tone the final article is likely to take. Any such divergence can, of course, be increased by the subsequent input of editors and sub-editors.

It’s hard to write-off the fairly obvious flaws in Times’s two articles as a “clash of perspective between scientist and journalist,” but this is probably as good as the public’s going to get as far as explanations go. It should be a mark of shame on the Times that it so obstinately resisted atoning for its mistakes for so long, and that it will not give the general public a clear explanation of what went so wrong in its newsroom.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.