The New York Times Public Editor admits the New York Times should have credited this blog, Hella Winston, and others for the work we did in exposing child sexual abuse in the Brooklyn haredi community and related public corruption.
The New York Times' Public Editor Arthur Brisbane wrote a column for Sunday's paper called "Credit Where Credit is Due." It deals with the Times' series on child sexual abuse in Brooklyn's haredi community, and it points out some of the sources the Times' reporters and editors stole from, including FailedMessiah.com.
The article begins with praise from Brisbane for the Times' reports and a long quote from Survivors for Justice president Ben Hirsch about the massive impact the Times' reports have had.
Then Brisbane gets into the heart of the matter at hand (the links are in Brisbane's original) :
…But what about the other, smaller news organizations and independent journalists who got there ahead of The Times, breaking important elements of the story first, laboring in the face of intense community opposition? No credit went to them in The Times’s series.
As appreciative as [Survivors for Justice president Ben} Hirsch said he was for The Times’s powerful articles, he expressed dismay at the paper’s “riding roughshod over the dedicated hard work of journalists that preceded and made possible The Times’s current coverage.”
The issue of crediting others arose even before the second part of the series was published online on May 10. Melissa Ludtke, executive editor for the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, complained to me that the first article failed to acknowledge the previous investigative reporting of others, particularly that of Hella Winston, a freelancer for The Jewish Week who is a fellow at the Schuster Institute.
I sent Carolyn Ryan, The Times’s metro editor, an appeal from Ms. Ludtke to give such credit in part two. But it didn’t happen. And after the second article’s publication, I heard from others complaining about uncredited foundational reporting — scores of articles in recent years — by additional publications, including The Jewish Daily Forward, the FailedMessiah.com blog, New York magazine and more.
Reading this material, it became clear to me that while there was important new material, many of the essential elements in The Times’s series had been reported previously.
To cite one example, The Times’s second article, which focused on the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, reported that his office had made inflated claims about the effectiveness of an abuse hot line he had set up. Ms. Winston had reported similar findings in The Jewish Week two weeks earlier.
The lack of credit stings. “You get so much flak — these are difficult stories,” Ms. Winston told me, “People come down on you.” The Times couldn’t have found all its sources among victims and advocates by itself, she added: “You wouldn’t have known they existed, you wouldn’t have been able to talk to them, if we hadn’t written about them for years.”
Responding to the complaints in an e-mail message to me, Ms. Ryan said, “We were never under any illusion that we were the first outlet to report on abuse in the community, nor did we claim to be.” She acknowledged the work of other outlets as well as a front-page Times article in 2009 as precedents in the coverage.
Ms. Ryan said that other outlets published articles over a period of months when The Times was doing its own extensive, independent reporting: interviewing more than 120 people, scrutinizing court records and creating databases of legal cases. But she said The Times credits others only when it uses “exclusive information that they reported first.”
I asked her about the inflated claims for the hot line, first reported in The Jewish Week. She said The Times, by its own means, had reached the same findings before The Jewish Week’s article was published.
“In other words, what she reported was not news to us,” she said.
Larry Cohler-Esses, assistant managing editor for The Jewish Daily Forward, said The Times wasn’t obligated to attribute every previously reported development. But, he said, it should have found somewhere in the lengthy series for a “nicely written paragraph characterizing in one place what the role of these newspapers had been in the foundation of this issue.”
I would agree. Especially since, in its first article, The Times paused to trace the rising awareness of child sexual abuse since 2008. Instead of noting the role of the community press, The Times simply told of victims telling their stories on radio call-in shows, on blogs and to victims’ advocates.
Mr. Hirsch, the victims’ advocate, traced the rise of awareness differently. After New York magazine published a groundbreaking exposé in 2006, he said, Mr. Cohler-Esses and Ms. Winston established trust with survivors and pushed the story forward.
“With every story published by The Jewish Week, The Jewish Star, The Forward, the Failed Messiah blog, the wall of silence was weakened,” he wrote.
I polled four veteran journalists who specialize in ethics, and all agreed that The Times should have provided some form of credit for previous reporting.
Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, observed: “It looks like The Jewish Week has been reporting on this for a long time, an entire body of work, done in smaller pieces, targeting a difference audience. It does not have the narrative flair of The Times. That is what The Times does so well: they put a story into a narrative so that you can recognize the significance.”
She added, “But there is no reason not to credit.”
She struck another theme, echoed by other ethics experts: that providing such credit would have enabled readers to find other sources of information on the subject, especially through online links.
The Times’s articles were superb, bringing together disparate elements and telling the story in a compelling way. But fairness dictates what the emerging expectations of the Internet era also dictate: readers should be told more clearly about precedent coverage by others.
The Times has little to lose in doing so, except perhaps the impression that it got the story alone.