Amid criticism, Times editor defends swaps of presidential-forum stories

September 9, 2016
The New York Times building in New York. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The New York Times this week set off a firestorm of criticism on Twitter for a merry-go-round of wholesale changes it made to an online story on a presidential candidate’s forum.

The same headline, “Candidates Flex Debate Muscles During TV Forum,” stood atop three completely different stories–featuring differing tones, anecdotes, and authors–over the course of hours. The discrepancies, pointed out by the website NewsDiffs, were roundly criticized by journalists and media watchdogs, who decried a startling lack of transparency.

But Times political editor Carolyn Ryan says the uproar was much ado about nothing. She says swapping out stories online is normal practice at the Times. Ryan tells CJR she didn’t understand the backlash as this was not an unusual practice at the Times. She says they constantly update web stories to keep readers on top of ongoing news events and don’t view these changes as corrections.

“You wouldn’t want to give print readers two stories about essentially the same event,” she says.

Ryan explained for certain stories, the Times first publishes a preview story prior to the event. Then, they assign one writer to online coverage and another to print as the event occurs. The online coverage replaces the first story and serves as a way to keep the website up to date in the early stages. Once the more in-depth print version is complete, it becomes the only version available both in print and online.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics chair, Andrew Seaman, is not quite buying that argument. The best practice would be to place a note on all stories that undergo changes, preferably with a way to view the original story, he says.

It just doesn’t seem like a smart decision for readers, in terms of a relationship and in terms of business, to be swapping out stories and possibly making them question the validity of the accuracy–of the impartiality–of your work.”

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“The whole point of journalism is to clarify things,” he tells CJR. “It just seems like that would be the approach to take especially in an age where people are growing increasingly skeptical of news coverage. It just doesn’t seem like a smart decision for readers, in terms of a relationship and in terms of business, to be swapping out stories and possibly making them question the validity of the accuracy–of the impartiality–of your work.”

The current version of the Times article online does not have a note or correction giving any type of explanation for all the changes–one point in particular that has confused observers. Ryan says for the future, she would consider noting the story would be updated continuously.

All of the versions of the story in question were filed under the same web address, showing these were not published as separate stories.

The first version, written Wednesday morning prior to the forum by Alan Rappeport, was completely replaced 12 hours later by an article written by Alexander Burns. The Times made revisions to Burns’ piece while it was live, but it was eventually replaced entirely by another story, written by Patrick Healy. Editors continued tweaking that story as well, NewsDiffs shows.

Notably, the criticism mostly surrounded the swap of Burns’s and Healy’s pieces and not the original removal of Rappeport’s preview story. While both latter articles provided solid accounts of the forum, online critics noted that the two versions had different tones–particularly on their treatment of Trump. One of Healy’s early versions did not mention Trump’s defense of Putin. This line was added back in the version most recently reviewed by CJR.

James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, wrote in a series of tweets, “If this story comparison is correct, the NYT had a good early story on HRC-DJT–and replaced it with something that didn’t even mention the Putin riff (prominent part of early story).”

When asked about the different tones of the stories, Ryan defends her writers. She says Burns was assigned to online coverage and Healy to print, and that was the only reason for the change. When asked about concerns over Healy’s bias she says, “Patrick is a brilliant reporter and he is scrupulously fair.”

Healy has received heat in the past for being soft on Trump in his political reporting. Last week, public editor Liz Spayd addressed readers’ concerns over a story that Healy wrote following Trump’s visit to Mexico. The first version of the piece was criticized for missing Trump’s rowdy anti-immigrant tone at a speech in Phoenix–instead making the candidate’s appearance seem more routine and measured, in line with a visit he made to Mexico earlier the same day.

Spayd writes, “I see nothing nefarious or ill-intentioned on the part of any editors or reporters involved in the Trump piece. Everyone was scrambling with late-breaking news across time zones, many moving parts, and both print and web deadlines. But given the complications of the story–an unpredictable candidate, brutal deadlines–it seems the newsroom was not in position to deliver a strong coverage package.”

Spayd also notes that Healy was responsible for both the web and print coverage of the event, which she says may have accounted for some of the error.

CJR highlighted similar concerns over transparency last year when the Times made various changes to a story about a criminal investigation involving Hillary Clinton. Critics say this ongoing problem is clearly counter to the goals of journalism and cause for concern.

On Twitter, many tried to start conversations with the key players–including the Times authors involved, Ryan, and Spayd to clarify what happened. Healy respond to some tweets yesterday, echoing Ryan’s statements that this was normal practice at the Times.

Media critic Jay Rosen was one of the many mediaites who tweeted the NewsDiffs tracking that had been circulating. He tells CJR he was quite puzzled by the situation as well.

“It was hard for me to understand why one was substituted for another.” Rosen adds. “Readers care what the Times reports, and when you don’t explain what you’re doing as you do it, people are going to speculate.”

Carlett Spike is a freelance writer and former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @CarlettSpike.