“It only takes 20 minutes to shift the blame,” and only a screen grab to implicate the Times

"it only takes 20 minutes to shift the blame"There is an image making the rounds on Facebook right now, an annotated dual screen capture of the New York Times front page story on the Brooklyn Bridge arrests that were the dramatic high point of the Occupy Wall Street protests over the weekend. The left side of the image shows a screen capture taken at 6:59 p.m., on Saturday, October 1. The lead it quotes at that time reads:

After allowing them onto the bridge, the police cut off and arrested dozens of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.

This excerpt clearly blames police and implies entrapment. In this version, police led protesters to their arrest by baiting them to do something illegal.

Version two of this story, which the screen grabber grabbed at 7:19 p.m. (giving us the 20 minute difference referenced in the glaring pink type), has a much more sedate, New York Timesy lead:

In a tense showdown over the East River, police arrested hundreds of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators after they marched onto the bridge’s Brooklyn-bound roadway.

The screengrabber obviously wants to imply that somewhere in the 20 minutes between screenshots, the Times either bowed to police pressure or at least changed the lead on its own to avoid pissing off One Police Plaza and probably also the mayor. In this reading, it is one powerful institution protecting another, which is exactly the sort of narrative lens through which Occupy Wall Street protesters, and our anonymous screen grabber, see the world.

And it may be true.

But there could be a lot less going on here. First, I’ll note that the whole “20 minutes” thing, while sloganariffic, isn’t exactly true. As I’d have my news editing students do, I’ll have you do the math. Study the screenshot and get back to me…. OK, got it? If you look closely, you’ll see that while the two grabs were taken 20 minutes apart, the stories were actually published 58 minutes apart. But that’s a minor point, even if “It takes just under an hour to shift the blame” doesn’t sound nearly as revolutionary.

More importantly, the second write-through doesn’t blame the protesters. In fact, it doesn’t blame anyone. The cause-and-effect sequence of the first version isn’t changed; it’s just removed.

Look at the byline, too. We’ve added a new reporter to the story in the last hour. Maybe he came back from the scene and told his editor that the cause-and-effect of the first version wasn’t as clear-cut as the first reporter thought it was. Maybe he had reason to believe that the first version of the story was the protesters’ version, and that the police disputed that. After all, only the police and the first ranks of marchers probably could have heard police warnings or seen police ushering the crowd onto (or attempting, in vain, to keep them off) the bridge.

The first version of the story, if it is true, is the stronger version. If we know that police actually did lure the marchers to their arrests, then the second version of the story is wishy-washy. But if we don’t know, we can’t, as journalists, lead with a tenuous claim. There are some very bad reasons to do he said/she said reporting. But on the Internet, when facts are still coming in, the right way to report is to lay both sides out there until you can get at a verified account of the truth.

And that’s why you shouldn’t use the editing process to create propaganda. If the NYT really is protecting the NYPD (and the Times was certainly slow to start covering the protests), the story will get out eventually.

Note (7:47 p.m.): I omitted any citation for the original image, because I wasn’t able to track down where it came from. The best I can tell, this is the original source: http://www.facebook.com/Schooloftheamericaswatch

Update (10:21 p.m.): I was poking around the referring links to this post today, largely because this is the single highest-traffic post I’ve had, and I found this. As the commenter on that page points out, Al Baker is a police reporter for the Times (the commenter calls him “NYPD biased,” though I haven’t read enough of his work to judge, and he did co-write the Times article about the pepper-spraying “white shirt” officer Anthony Bologna).That he is a police reporter, however, is certainly worth noting, since beat reporters can have a tendency to write from the point of view of their sources, no matter how skeptical they see themselves. Colin Moynihan, the first author of the story, has been following the protesters in his recent work. The different POVs seem likely to have contributed to the change between the two versions of the story here, whether or not there’s conscious bias at work.

Update (December 14, 2011): I received an email from Colin Moynihan, and have written a follow-up to this original post.

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17 comments

  1. Thanks for your pov on this. I will incorporate into my online radio show tomorrow if you don’t mind, with full attribution to your blog.

  2. Sure, and please send me a link.

  3. http://www.blogtalkradio.com/here-be-monsters

    Thank you for allowing me to quote from your piece. 😉

  4. here is the 2nd journalist who edited the article…. https://journalism.cc.stonybrook.edu/?p=585

  5. Thanks for that link, a_voice. I think it shows us something about here he’s coming from. Though just as a process issue, I’d disagree with saying Baker edited the article. In all likelihood, he contributed new reporting to the article, which was edited by one—or more likely several—supervising editors. One of those editors, or one or more of the credited reporters, may have done the actual rewriting. It’s worth noting that the final version of the article added yet another author, Sarah Maslin Nir.

  6. Good evening a-voice.
    Checking out the link you provide I notice his ‘beat’ was covering the NYPD. Do you think that might of ‘colored’ his pov of the original writeup?

  7. Dusty, I don’t know about a_voice, but check out my 10:21 update, above, and the link I provide in it.

  8. She gives the NYPD the benefit of the doubt in all her writeups it appears KL. Do you agree?

  9. Who? Maslin Nir? There’s a tiny sample size of her writing on the police. Which write-ups are you referring to?

  10. “A video seems to show a high-ranking member of the Police Department using pepper spray against several women.”
    “New York Police Department officers are seen dragging a man, who appears to be unable to stand, by his feet.”

    Those are two quotes from two of her recent articles on the NYPD and the OWS movement in NYC currently taking place.

    I find it hard to believe that a man “appeared” to be unable to stand..if he couldn’t stand/walk he would most likely be in a wheelchair is my logical assumption. A video is a video and saying it ‘seems’ to show is very strange as either it shows him spraying them or it doesn’t.

  11. “Seems,” madam? Nay, it is; I know not “seems.”

    I suppose I understand that, but from the point of view of the reporter, you can’t necessarily say outright that something happened because it was seen on video, no matter how true it may—ahem—seem. Partially, this is a legal dodge. If you leave out the “seems” in that first quote, you leave yourself much more open to a libel case. In this case, the statement fact is that this looks like something, not that it is the thing.

    It’s the same reason, from a civil liberties point of view, that ethical reporters never call a person a murderer until he or she is convicted–and even then, the phrase is “convicted murderer,” not “murderer.” The same goes for the pepper sprayer and the man who appears unable to walk. I think you could ascribe benefit of the doubt to the reporter there, but I think that is probably reading too much into the mind of the reporter.

    Mostly, in the miasma of facts, “seems” can be a defense against uttering a statement of fact that turns out later not to be true.

  12. You are very kind to our Corporate Media KL..I am not. I always feel that their reporting/writing frames events and that is just as important as being impartial in ‘my book’. Changing a piece after it has been printed smacks of Corporate bs in my pov…and it always will.

    But I do get your pov on this issue. 😉

    Have a good evening..whats left of it..I must get ready for tomorrows online radio show!

  13. I see where you’re coming from, too. I left to teach because I was frustrated with the system of journalism as it existed. And I also believe that there is a bias toward the status quo and a bias toward self-preservation in almost all media, including the subset that includes journalism. And it’s great that skeptics and critics keep reporters honest. I think that the protesters on Wall Street are a mix of principled objectors and people who want to hang out and be a part of the scene. And I believe there are cops who believe that they are keeping order and cops who are nakedly abusing their power. And I believe there are reporters who are trying to maintain a world that they recognize (whether consciously or not), and reporters who are seeking some kind of truth, regardless of the outcome of their reporting. The last are a noble sort, and rarer than journalism romantics like to think. In this case though, I don’t think these reporters are functioning as tools of a malicious corporation.

  14. I spent a fair amount of time but I have not found any source to verify this image. How do we know it’s not Photoshopped? Has NYT verified it?

  15. That’s a good point, carush. I don’t have confirmation (though I’ll admit that I haven’t tried, either). But it certainly looks authentic to me, and neither of the captions is really all that shocking. My gut feeling is that these are genuine.

  16. […] months and a bit ago, I wrote a piece trying to analyze the two web write-throughs of the New York Times coverage of the NYPD arrests of […]

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