Thursday, October 20, 2005

Heard back from The Seattle Times

I got an email this afternoon from David Birdwell, National/Foreign News Editor at the Seattle Times regarding my opinions about omissions in stories printed in the Times within a week of each other (on 2 different occassions) that served to mislead readers. As noted, I do not think that this is a conspiracy of any sort, but rather a couple of mistakes that perhaps needed to be pointed out and corrected. From Mr. Birdwell's reply:

Mr. Stringfellow:
Thanks for the note. It's always nice to hear from somebody who is so obviously informed and reasoned.
You make a lot of good points.
Regarding the Sandi Doughton piece concerning George Taylor, I think our wire desk generally does a good job of reading the newspaper. Of course, nobody sees every single thing written by every other department. People go out of town, take vacations, have family emergencies, etc. In a perfect world, our environmental reporters would take a look at all our environmental wire stories, and vice-versa, but only the largest publications have that kind of manpower. Our local reporters have their projects, and our wire editors have only so many hours in the day. I think the Times has an excellent wire operation; we do so much more with our wire report than other newspapers in our circulation class. That said, we can't always spend as much time as we'd like on every story. As in every profession, it's a matter of priorities.
Fair enough. As I said, I just wanted to raise it up a notch. It continues:

Some other things to consider: The Doughton piece and The Washington Post story you cite are apples and oranges. Doughton's package was as comprehensive as anything we do, examining many different factors on both sides of the argument. She literally had months to work on that package. In contrast, The Post article was short in length, and I'm not sure it would have been the best use of space to spend several paragraphs poking holes in Taylor's credentials; it's also not fair to refute the credibility of the only critic in the story.
Here, we disagree a bit. Yes, the stories are apples and oranges to some extent, but not for the reasons cited. Both stories were about Global Warming. The Doughton piece, however, is how the media manipulates public opinion in the debate by allowing skeptics with suspect credentials to post views without mentioning either the credentials or offering rebuttal of the skeptics so that it appears that Global Warming is a hotly debated topic amongst scientists. Ms. Doughton pointed out herself that the vast majority of scientists agree that the planet is warming and that man made causes are part of the problem. She said, however, that the media, by presenting energy-funded skeptics who are sometimes not peer reviewed publishers, gives the public the impression that the debate is 50-50 when it's really 99-1 with the majority believing global warming is an issue. So, yes, the pieces are apples and oranges in that the Washington Post piece published later is actually an example of Ms. Dougton's reporting, complete with using a skeptic who was debunked in her article. Note Mr. Birdwell's comment about fairness. That's exactly the problem: how fair is it to print the skeptic's views without also telling readers that his project was funded by Exxon, et al, and that he has never published in peer review journals? How is that fair to readers? Since when does "fairness" or "balance" give way to veracity of the story; the integrity of the news reported?

The rest of the letter:

As for the flu-vaccine story, yes, I'm sure there are many reasons why we aren't prepared for a potential flu pandemic, and I'm sure the government deserves a good deal of the blame. Yes, the story would have been better with the previous elements that you cite. It's a matter of time and resources. To be honest, the Chicago Tribune story arrived very late in the evening, and we had to react quickly to even put it in the newspaper. This is the case with many stories from papers such as the Tribune, LA Times, Washington Post, etc.
I think your comments are worth noting, and I will pass them along to my staff. They're worthy of consideration. We will continue to try to do better. I ask in return that you give consideration to the things that I have mentioned.

All good points and I accept them at Mr. Birdwell's words. It's good that the Times replied and I think that they generally do a good job. These just happened to be two glaring instances that I wanted to bring to their attention so that they can improve their product.

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