Readers' Representative Journal

A conversation on newsroom ethics and standards

Category: Ethics

Eyewitnesses and experts in recent plane crash stories

Us_airways_sullenberger_post_2 A plane crash is news. What people have to say about the crash is part of the story. But whose perspectives actually add enough to warrant publication? Two recent airplane accidents have brought these questions from readers. One story quoted an unnamed person with experience in the field; one quoted and named an eyewitness with no apparent background in aviation.

Mike Holmstrom of San Jose took note of one passage in one of the first-day news stories on the US Airways crash-gliding in New York's Hudson River. Toward the end, the article said:

One longtime commercial pilot who has spent years as a company flight instructor warned that before dubbing Sullenberger a hero, investigators needed to determine whether crew error contributed to the emergency.

The pilot, who did not want to be named, was skeptical that bird strikes shut down both engines.

"I've seen it happen too many times in the simulators -- you get a flameout in one engine and the quick response is to shut down the wrong one," the pilot said."

After the National Transportation Safety Board said that both engines had indeed simultaneously lost power, Holmstrom wrote, "Do us all a favor, and tell the staff of The Times not to speculate so early into an investigation. What were the writers thinking? I wish The Times would come forward & say they blew it by doubting the pilot in this incident."

A December article covering the crash in San Diego of a military jet included this passage:

"It was mushing through the air," Kreischer said. "It was chugging along with what seemed like one engine. Then I heard a roar of engine and all of a sudden, whoop, dead silence.

"This guy could have turned it around and put it in the ocean. He was never going to make it to Miramar."

At the time the story appeared, Christopher Chinman in San Diego objected:

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When should crime victims' names be published?

"R&B star Rihanna is cooperating with investigators building a domestic violence case against her boyfriend, the singer Chris Brown, a police source said Monday," is the opening line in a news story published Tuesday, but it was a story a day earlier that brought questions and, in a few cases, condemnation of The Times.

The issue: Whether The Times should have published Rihanna's name as the accuser in that first-day news story.

As a post on this journal a year ago noted, the consideration on whether to withhold names is usually reserved for cases involving allegations of rape. (From the L.A. Times stylebook: "The Times does not name rape victims in most cases. Any exception to this standard, for whatever reason, must be approved by the editor, the managing editor, the associate editor or the senior editor.")

But the story unfolding over the weekend involved accusations of domestic violence.

Danny Shea, media editor at HuffingtonPost, wrote on his blog, "The Los Angeles Times decided to run Rihanna's name — despite the LAPD's refusal to confirm her identity, citing state laws meant to protect abuse victims' privacy."

A few others who sent e-mails thought that news organizations have a rule to omit victims' names in certain crime stories. Reader Adrienne Archer thought identifying Rihanna was "sleazy": "If Mr. Brown did these things he should be punished but if his girlfriend was his victim (which the LAPD did not confirm) she should not be. But you have done just that."

Kay Hagan of Santa Fe wrote, "You could not have known for certain that Chris Brown's assault victim had not been sexually violated as well as beaten up, since the police were withholding her name."

To the several individuals who have written, California Editor David Lauter has responded with the following note.

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'Battlestar Galactica' a shock to some readers

Fans of "Battlestar Galactica" were angry about Saturday's story in Calendar, and if you haven't seen the show that aired Friday, do not read the second half of this post. Here was one of the more civil comments: "If you had half a brain (which it is clear you do not), you would have had some sort of spoiler alert in the headline and no photo.  Seriously people, get a clue."

Also among the less-insulting notes was this: "On the front page of your Saturday edition Calendar section, you published a major spoiler about the episode of 'Battlestar Galactica' that aired the night before. I had not had an opportunity to view the show yet, and had been trying to avoid learning any secrets about the show until I did so. The article had no spoiler warning, and included a photograph that ensured that even a casual glance would give the secret away. I am a long-time Times subscriber and do not read your paper to have my enjoyment of TV shows ruined. This was an incredibly stupid and inconsiderate thing to do."

Seriously, if you don't want to know, please don't read on.

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Readers have questions about columnist's return*

As evidenced by the comments that have come in on last week's announcement that Michael Hiltzik would again be writing a column for The Times, some readers recall that the paper chose to take away Hiltzik's column in 2006, and wonder why management changed its mind. The essence of the response from editors: Hiltzik has redeemed himself.

Russ Stanton, now editor of The Times, was Business editor when Hiltzik's popular column for the Business section was discontinued. As the editor's note published at the time said, Hiltzik had been found to be violating The Times' ethics guidelines by using pseudonyms to post comments on the Web that dealt with his column and other issues involving the newspaper.

Readers were also told in the 2006 editor's note, "Mike did not commit any ethical violations in his newspaper column, and an internal inquiry found no inaccurate reporting in his postings in his blog or on the Web."

Since his column was pulled in 2006, writes Stanton, Hiltzik "has been an invaluable asset to the paper. He has earned the right to return as a columnist." In those two years, more than 35 news articles written by Hiltzik have been published on the front page. Stanton says editors believe that what readers can learn from Hiltzik the columnist will be as trustworthy as what he's delivered in his news reports.

*Update - A reader asks in a comment below: "Yes, but he will still be able to do stories?" Says Business Editor Sallie Hofmeister: Yes he will, although with two columns a week, he will have less time to write stories

For one reader, a recipe for questions

Turkey_pot_pie_recipeThomas Wall of Rancho Palos Verdes wrote, "I did not think I would ever write to complain about the contents of an article by S. Irene Virbila concerning how to make a turkey pot pie, but my ethics require me to do so. I am referring to her otherwise excellent article [Nov. 26].  Her writing has compelled me to try the recipe. My concern, however, is very serious. She writes, 'This year, Ralphs had turkeys on sale for 37 cents a pound...'."

"She could have easily written, 'This year, turkeys were on sale at some stores for as low as 37 cents a pound.' I am concerned that the reason Ms. Virbila identified a particular store was that the store was a major advertiser with The Times. It is no secret that The Times, like other newspapers, are having severe economic problems, but to identify their major advertisers in major stories is something that even a small local paper would, I hope, have the ethics not to do."

Food Editor Russ Parsons assures us that the inclusion of that reference  had nothing to do with pleasing an advertiser. But it never occurred to the editor or reporter that including such  information might come across to readers as a sign of complicity between the newsroom and the advertising department. 

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Proposition 8: We get e-mails...

Readers have homed in on three facets of coverage when it comes to Proposition 8:

  • Before the election there was an ad that popped out, literally, at readers as they perused the editorial board's stands online.
  • Just after the election there were complaints that the newsroom called the vote too soon, and wasn't giving adequate coverage to those who were protesting the results of the vote.
  • In the days since have come complaints that the coverage is trying to make Yes on 8 voters look bad.
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Obama, the videotape and informing the public

Earlier this month, six months after the original story was published about Barack Obama's ties with Palestinians and Jews, people started calling and sending e-mails to the L.A. Times urging the paper to "release the video." A few notes became a flood of more than 15,000 e-mails by Wednesday morning calling the paper un-American, partisan and worse after Sen. John McCain's campaign accused The Times of "suppressing" a videotape.

The e-mails to The Times included links to an Oct. 25 blog post that said The Times was "hiding incriminating" information. 

Most who called and e-mailed seemed not to have even read The Times' April news article that had brought the event in question to light, headlined "Allies of Palestinians see a friend in Barack Obama: They consider him receptive despite his clear support of Israel." The front-page piece when it was published drew some criticism from the left. But that reaction has been dwarfed by the number of page views and responses the story has drawn over the past five days. The article examined presidential candidate Obama's view of Middle East politics. It included a description of a gathering held in Chicago by local Arab Americans for Rashid Khalidi, described in the story as "an internationally known scholar, critic of Israel and advocate for Palestinian rights." The story also said, "The event was videotaped, and a copy of the tape was obtained by The Times."

The Times itself addressed the criticisms in a news story published Wednesday. In it, Editor Russ Stanton said, "The Los Angeles Times did not publish the videotape because it was provided to us by a confidential source who did so on the condition that we not release it. The Times keeps its promises to sources."

Many responses were similar to that of Erich R. Bleiweiss, from Burlington, N.J.,  who said in an e-mail: "Please do not insult me by stating that the L.A. Times is protecting a source. This would only be a matter of convenience on the part of the L.A. Times and nothing more."

Those bombarding the paper saw it as if the issues were diametrically opposed -- "informing the public" vs. "protecting a source." The nuances of the issue were highlighted even more in Thursday's news story in The Times, when various journalists added to the conversation about the principle of how journalists work with sources.

The editor of the April story, Aaron Zitner, who works in The Times' Washington, D.C., bureau, noted that the paper would have preferred to be able to post the video but could not get the source to agree. Zitner said, "If we had not reached this agreement, we would not have had access to this tape at all. Then no one would ever have known Obama attended this event and spoke at it. We were pushing to say the most we could and to present the most we could to readers about what happened."

Thursday's article also quotes Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "The calculus a reporter is making is: 'What is the public good of getting the information, and does it outweigh the limitations that the source wants me to put on the information?' In this case, knowing about this event and being able to describe it to readers seems like a pretty good trade-off for not being able to release the video."

Support for The Times' sticking to its journalistic priniciples came in a post from Bill Sammon, the deputy managing editor of Fox News Channel's Washington bureau. Saying that the choice was "pretty simple," Sammon wrote of The Times and the reporter on the April story, "Indeed, [Peter] Wallsten has little choice in the matter. If he were to cave in to mounting public demands for the tape, no self-respecting source would ever give him another shred of information. Nor should they."

Others had started weighing in earlier in the week.

Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz clarified the issue in a blog entry Wednesday on the Huffington Post: "A simplistic view of freedom of speech would favor full and timely disclosure of all relevant information regardless of any promises made to a source. The more complex view of freedom of speech holds that unless newspapers keep their promises (and unless the law allows them to keep their promises) there will be less not more information available to the public."

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Playing the stock market story

Happy_nyse_tradersReader Ken Reza of Burbank thought that the news of the Dow Jones industrial average scoring its biggest one-day point gain ever should have been on the front page Tuesday.

"I just wanted to offer some advice on how your paper could help build investor confidence that we so desperately need and would hence help rebuild our economy," wrote Reza in an e-mail sent Tuesday. "Yesterday we just saw a record 900+ point surge in the market that had never been seen before on Wall Street. This should have been on the front page of today's paper and here is why: It would ... help ordinary Americans feel more confident that [our] system is not broken, it would allow foreign investors to regain confidence that America is still the number one country to do business in and last of all it would help to just see a positive reflection of our economy. I would like to see more positive spins from L.A. Times when they appear so that way it can help restore the confidence in Americans in not pulling all of [their] money out of the stock market."

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When mistakes are made ...

The readers' representative office sometimes hears from readers who claim that the first thing they look at each day is the "For the Record" box on Page A2 (published online at a corrections link on the left bar of the homepage). Whether it's an affinity for accuracy or a sense of schadenfreude that's behind their interest in the page, the readers are seeing the result of an emphasis on correcting the record that was strengthened eight or nine years ago at The Times.

The "For the Record" section also includes contact information for the readers' representative office. And many of the corrections and clarifications are there thanks to the participation of (as Jay Rosen at PressThink identifies them) the people formerly known as the audience -- those readers who contact The Times in an effort to help keep the published record straight.

Nowadays, The Times addresses inaccuracies that might have gone unnoted years ago. An opinion piece in Op-Ed in 2001 had Toni Morrison born in "Loraine," Ohio. At the time, a reader noted that the city is spelled "Lorain." No correction ran; today it would be corrected. Why the fuss over an E? It's simpler to acknowledge in writing all misspelled proper nouns rather than have staffers debate how many wrong letters of a name warrant correction.

Though some matters are black and white -- ages that are wrong, proper nouns that are misspelled -- in other cases, things are less clear. The section is called "For the Record" for a reason: Not everything is a correction. Sometimes entries simply clarify.

That gray area is where readers, editors, reporters and members of this office often find themselves wrangling over what warrants a for-the-record. Just one recent example: Did the headline and Sept. 10 editorial about the 99 Cents Only Stores upping prices to 99.99 cents deserve a for-the-record? The headline read "The almost 1% solution." Mathematics-minded readers pointed out that the price change wasn't "almost" 1%. But the editorial referred to a "1% price hike," then said, "or rather, a price hike that approaches 1%." Was the thing wrong? Misleading? Yes, and no. Because the correct figures were in the article, it was decided that for the average reader it wasn't a correctible offense. But -- although letters to the editor cannot be used in place of a for-the-record -- letters-page editors did decide to publish on Sept. 14 a reproval from Christopher Hoffman of Long Beach. As Hoffman pointed out, "A 0.99-cent increase is not 'a price hike that approaches 1%,' it equals 1% exactly. Simple math: 101% of 99 is 99.99. Or 99.9900000000 -- without rounding, the need for a parabolic curve or anything else."

What has brought the most debate in the newsroom these days are questions raised by the fact that The Times publishes constantly, on the Internet.

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Remembering 9/11

Pentagon_memorialL.A. Times editors wanted to acknowledge the seventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in the Sept. 11 print edition. So they published two articles on the front page -- a report on the weakened state of Al Qaeda (even as officials worry about how the threat of terrorism is evolving), and a story about the presidential candidates' similar platforms on Iraq, Afghanistan and national security. Editors also put a story and photo on the Nation page about a memorial at the Pentagon ("the first national memorial to the victims of that tragic day," according to the story), and another news article on the front of the California section about an assistant religious studies professor at UC Davis who has studied what he calls "the most complete audio library of Bin Laden's past."

But for some readers, the photo choice on the front page Thursday apparently overshadowed the stories: On Wednesday, the Angels beat the Yankees 4-2 to clinch the American League West -- the team's fourth division title in five years -- and the image on A1 on Thursday showed outfielder Reggie Willits getting dunked in a tub after the win.

Nearly 20 readers had comments like the phone message from Eileen Ales of Malibu on the readers' representative phone line: "This is 9/11 and how do you cover it? How soon we forget."

Debra Tenzer of Los Angeles did see the stories, and in a follow-up call said that she appreciated them. But her voicemail message left early in the morning was this: "I was appalled to open the L.A. Times this morning -- on Sept. 11 -- and find a large photo of the celebrating Angels dunking in a tub of ice on the anniversary of one of the greatest tragedies our country has ever experienced. This is not like you. I highly enjoy The Times and am shocked that you would use such bad judgment and put this photograph above the fold on page one of this day."

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Convention coverage critiques from both sides of the aisle

"I noticed you had a big expose on Sarah Palin on the top of the front page last week. You just had to rain on her parade.  You had better open your eyes to the fact that there are conservatives who live in L.A. too," read part of an e-mail from Barbara Hardesty of Los Angeles.

The Times heard from the other side of the aisle as well, getting a number of comments like this one from Pat Taylor of Calabasas: "I must comment on the inclusion of an article blasting Joe Biden, printed not 24 hours after his nomination.  Your bias is showing and has been each day of the Democratic convention."

Most readers who took the time to contact The Times about coverage of the conventions did so because they were unhappy. Those front-page examinations of the vice presidential candidates were but two specifics readers named. Dozens of others thought the front-page report on Sarah Palin's daughter's pregnancy was inappropriate; they thought the overall coverage of the GOP vice presidential candidate was too negative. Among complaints from the other side, a number of readers asked why the Los Angeles Times hadn't challenged a statement that Palin made in her speech about Obama's record in the Senate.

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Curses, etc.

Deputy Managing Editor Melissa McCoy last week distributed The Times' Taste and Obscenities policy, and as her cover note to the staff said, the biggest change is that the guidelines now look more closely at online content. What hasn't changed is the overall goal: "to maintain a clean, dignified and civil tone."

So much of what The Times publishes now lives in the Wild West of the Web, where practices differ considerably from the relatively staid world of print. That's why, starting some 18 months ago, a Standards and Practices Committee was convened to consider how The Times might change various editing and publishing procedures. When it comes to cussing, the group saw no reason to lower the standards from the ruling that has existed since the guidelines came out several years ago.

That's the reason, for example, a story on Dec. 16 in Calendar in the midst of the writers strike quoted veteran Letterman writer Bill Scheft as saying that "David Letterman, on the air without writers . . . is the greatest ally the writers would ever have, because he would rail nightly. He could be more influential as an on-air stone in people's shoes. "

In fact, what Scheft had said to reporter Matea Gold was, "David Letterman, on the air without writers, pissed off, is the greatest ally the writers would ever have, because he would rail nightly. He could be more influential as an on-air stone in people’s shoes."

"Pissed off" is among crude language regularly removed from Times coverage as part of what McCoy acknowledges is "a conservative standard" when it comes to publishing coarse or vulgar remarks. When the copy desk suggested the deletion and pointed to the guidelines (noting that "the rest of the quote is still strong and conveys the point"), the editor of the piece, Kate Aurthur, agreed to use the ellipsis but was disappointed. She says she finds the policy "infuriating": "As a media organization," she writes in an e-mail taking issue with the newly released policy, "we should certainly have high standards -- above all, to accuracy. To that end, we should reflect the world as it is, even if we don't like how people talk sometimes. I would argue that being able to quote someone in full goes to that most important goal of accuracy, rather than what is to me a slightly scolding, prudish language policy. We might pretend otherwise, but changing that quotation changed its meaning. Why would we ever do that?"

Along with Aurthur, a few other staffers also argue that the paper's role is to reflect the community and greater society. To that, the policy says this: "We acknowledge that a wide range of vulgarities are commonplace on the Internet and elsewhere, but we intend to maintain a much higher standard." And the subjective nature of editing means even those who support that goal differ -- an editor or writer who might flinch at allowing "he sucks" in a story might not hesitate at allowing the word "hell," or vice versa.

Clark Stevens oversees the style and usage guidelines at The Times and has his own take on the use of an ellipsis in the quote about Letterman: " 'Pissed off' is an interesting example because it's on the borderline. It's not, in itself, obscene, but it is a crude colloquialism. Would it offend some readers? A few, no doubt, but probably only mildly. It's a phrase we've all heard, and most of us have used. But is it essential to the story (or the quotation) here, and is it consistent with the overall tone and image we want to project to our readers? I think that's where conservative judgment prevails in favor of not using it. But it's a close call and a subjective one, with no hard and fast rule to govern it. And there shouldn't be a hard and fast rule. We depend on the very wide range of often conflicting opinions of writers and editors here to ultimately come up with language that is clear and accurate, evocative and contemporary, refined but realistic."

The policy for the first time takes into account the online world vs. the print world. As McCoy wrote in her cover note to staff when she distributed the updated guidelines on obscenity and taste, "A less formal voice may be appropriate in online stories and on blogs (as is often the case in feature stories too), but a conversational style is not an invitation to abandon The Times’ high standards by introducing gratuitous obscenities."

So whether it's on or in print, curse words and crude language are supposed to be used only when they are essential to conveying an important point of the story. As just one example of a very complex issue, The Times might quote obscenities used by an elected official if they were spoken in the middle of a campaign in which he's portraying himself as a family man.

The policy follows below, or can be found at this link.

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