Steps include having senior editors write a regular column about the internal workings of the paper, making reporters and editors more available to the public and systematically tracking errors.
The 16-page report, entitled Preserving Our Readers’ Trust, also proposed the paper increase its coverage of “middle America, rural areas and religion,” respond more aggressively to legitimate public attacks on the paper’s work and consider creating a “blog that promotes interaction with readers.”
The committee, headed by the paper’s standards editor Allan Siegal, also stressed that the Times should make the paper’s editorial decisions and internal operations more transparent to readers to improve its credibility.
Suggested methods to achieve this goal included limiting the use of anonymous sources, posting interview transcripts and documents used in reports on the paper’s Web site and “encouraging reporters to confirm the accuracy of articles with sources before publication and to solicit feedback from sources after publication.”
The report went on to say the paper should better differentiate between its commentary, opinion and news reporting as well as instruct reporters appearing on TV and radio on how to avoid improperly crossing the line of “opinion, conjecture or partisanship.”
Executive editor Bill Keller, who convened the committee in November to study issues of journalistic credibility, supported the report’s recommendations, calling the report “a sound blueprint for the next stage of our campaign to secure accuracy, fairness and accountability.”
The report stems from a review process that began in 2003 when the Times commissioned a committee, also headed by Siegal, to examine the paper’s editorial policies and newsroom practices in the wake of a damaging journalism fraud scandal, called by Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. “a low point” in the paper’s 152-year history.
The scandal erupted after the newspaper discovered former Times reporter Jayson Blair had plagiarized and fabricated quotes in at least three dozen articles from October 2002 until late April 2003. Blair resigned in May 2003 and the paper’s top two editors, Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd, stepped down about a month later. The so-called “Siegal committee” issued its 58-page report on the origins and causes of the scandal in July 2003.
Shortly thereafter, another major news scandal broke when USA Today’s then-star foreign correspondent Jack Kelley in January 2004 resigned after an internal investigation of his work concluded he had fabricated parts of an article. USA Today later found that Kelley had fabricated parts in nearly a dozen other reports.
Since then, many news organizations, including the Times and USA Today, have sought to bolster the public’s trust in their work. For example, The New York Times created an ombudsman, or public editor, position as recommended by the “Siegal committee” after the Blair fiasco.
Keller did not specify which recommendations would be implemented, but said he would release a more official plan in the coming weeks about how to move forward.
He also said he will be working with department heads and committee members to “devise an implementation plan that goes beyond exhortation and attempts to hardwire these guidelines into the newsroom operations.”
At the same time, Keller said these reforms by themselves would not “reverse the decline of public trust in news organizations,” saying “there are too many factors beyond our control.”
But, he underscored, “it’s essential, though, that we do our best to control the quality of the things that are in our control. That means a fuller dialogue with, as the committee puts it, ‘our publics,’ which does not have to be self-referential or defensive.”