‘Our Policy Is Not To Unpublish Something Published’



Margaret Sullivan, public editor of The New York Times


This morning, on RTÉ  Radio One’s Morning Ireland, reporter Laura Whelan spoke with the New York Times Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan regarding the paper’s coverage of the Berkeley tragedy.

The interview was conducted before former President Mary McAleese sent a letter to the newspaper, saying it “should be hanging its head in shame” over the article.

Margaret Sullivan: “Well I think the first thing that happened was the New York Times ran a short of brief and sort of to-the-point news story online, on Tuesday about this tragic and really terrible event that happened in Berkeley, California. After that, as I understand it, editors and reporters felt that they should develop the story in some way and looked for a different kind of angle and the angle that they ended up deciding on was this idea of looking more deeply at the J1 programme and that’s what ended up being this very controversial and very much criticised article and I think the criticism is completely valid.”

Laura Whelan: “A lot of people, Margaret, in Ireland, have been badly offended by this article. Can you understand these feelings?”

Sullivan: “Yes, absolutely, I completely understand where the criticism is coming from. I wrote a post today [yesterday] in something called the Public Editors Journal that said you know I understand the criticism, I called the article insensitive and, even though I can’t apologise on behalf of the Times because, as Public Editor, I only actually express my own, independent opinion, I did say that I personally was very sorry that so much pain was caused by this.”

Whelan: “Margaret, a Government minister here in Ireland [Aodhan Ó Riordain] has accused the New York Times of victim blaming. Would you agree with that stance?”

Sullivan: “There is an element of victim blaming in this article but I believe it was inadvertent. I know, for example, the lead reporter on the article – whose name is Adam Nagourney – he’s a very good reporter, he’s a very solid fellow and I’ve had a lot of correspondence with him today [yesterday]. He feels terrible about this. I think he feels that he essentially made a mistake.”

Whelan: “What changes will be made to the article now? It’s  still available, up online.”

Sullivan: “Yes. The article is pretty much as it was to begin with. Mr Nagourney said that he made some, small changes before it went to print. But the Times’s policy is not to unpublish something once it’s been published and to keep the archive version of it pretty much as is. So I’m not expecting it to be taken down or, as we say, unpublished.”

Whelan: “I understand what you’re saying about the New York Times’ policy on that but I suppose given the level of feeling here in Ireland and the fact that the New York Times has now received a letter actually from Ambassador Anne Anderson, do you think this would maybe be an incident where perhaps the New York Times should go against its own policy and withdraw this article, take it down offline?”

Sullivan: “I don’t, again I want to sort of say, that I can’t speak for the paper, about that, all I can tell you is that, in my experience, that just never happens. I mean there can be criticism and there can be apology, there can be an acknowledgement but the story pretty much stays as is.”

Whelan: “In terms of the level of complaints received Margaret and, you know, the involvement of an ambassador, and also a Government minister here in Ireland, can you remember any other article, you know, going back a couple of years in the New York Times, that caused this much upset?”

Sullivan: “There certainly has been a great deal  of complaint and many, many emails and, as you say, official ones. I’ve had, I’ve been in the role of Public Editor for coming up on three years and I would say it’s among the ones that I’ve had the most complaint and response about. But, you know, perhaps not at the very top of the list.”

Listen back here in full

Previously: Anything Good In The New York Times?

57 thoughts on “‘Our Policy Is Not To Unpublish Something Published’

  1. Lordblessusandsaveus

    Amazing when it’s a group of middle class connected children from south Dublin. The old establishment are controlling the narrative around this.

    It wouldn’t be like this if those kids were from Finglas and the balcony was in Magaluf. You wouldn’t have RTE in mourning. You wouldn’t have priests clambering over each other to be heard on the radio.

    You all know how divided and hypocritical this country is. You all know it’s true.

      1. ESV

        Actually I think s/he has a point, though it’s not at all the fault of the kids that they come from a middle-class background, and it obviously doesn’t for a second take away from the immensity of the tragedy. But suspending Dail proceedings, for instance – you do wonder whether that would happen in the kind of case suggested above. (Not to mention whether it can be argued to be in any way useful in this case.)

        1. scottser

          what? ok then, lets wish for the death of half-a-dozen kids from a working class area and we’ll compare then?
          fupn listen to yourselves..

          1. Joe the Lion

            How about a few million North Koreans who are starving? Will that be enormous enough suffering to get the house that Jack built off the front page?

          2. scottser

            go fuk yourself hank. its a tragedy, pure and simple and you’d hate it to happen to anyone. can we not just be a bit sympathetic and lose the cynicism for once?

    1. Frilly Keane

      Something that irked me in particular
      Was the 6one news last night adding Medical student to two of the deceased. And leaving the the others as Student

      Now that’s as South Conty Dublin as you can get

    2. Rotide peed on my lock

      Yeah… like the ‘Magaluf’ carry on is comparable here…. give it a rest ya spanner.

      There’s only been one priest spoken to in all the reports I’ve seen and heard, same dude every time (Happy to be corrected if wrong)

    3. Gers

      +10 next we’ll hear how they were just trying to get some fresh air while sipping on Robinson Orange.

    4. Sinabhfuil

      Can’t disagree that a bunch of Finglas kids and a bunch of Foxrock kids won’t get the same news coverage. It’s wrong, but it’s human, and it comes from our shockingly and increasingly unequal society: the journalists probably knew some of the families, which would be less likely if they were from Finglas.

      1. Aidan

        I’m going to disagree with you strongly on that. I don’t for a second think the feeling would be any different if they were from a different area of Dublin, or anywhere in the country.

        One of the girls who survived was daughter of Niall Cogley of TV3, that’s the only media connection i’m aware of. Other than a slight proximity to RTÉ from Loreto and UCD i’m not sure why you think they’d be known by journalists.

      2. Owen C

        This is f*cking stupid. For 2-3 hours after the incident happened, we didn’t know where any of these kids were from, and there was still a huge amount of shock and saddness at the idea that a group of Irish kids had died and were injured abroad in such a terrible manner. There’s no classism taking place here other than in your head.

        1. Sinabhfuil

          Mmaybe. But many journos would have had kids on J! visas, and felt when they went to America and were among a bunch of their friends they were safe and minded.
          On the other hand, when things have happened like working-class fathers killing themselves and their kids, there has also been a howl of grief from the whole country. So maybe I’m wrong.

        2. Gav D

          Seriously, this. This is demonstrably the case well before anyone knew the kids backgrounds.

          This trolling says much more about the people posting this nonsense than it does about the media.

    5. phil

      @ Lordbless, Id have to say Im guilty as charged, something similar crossed my mind, although my exact thought was ‘Thats the news sorted for the indo for the next fortnight ‘ , Putting their terrible loss aside for a sec, I felt deep sorrow for the families as I suspected the meja would pick through their lives in the most invasive way possible a la Karen Buckley, Jill Meagher, Michaela Mcareavey .

      Middle class/working class families who suffer tragedy dont decide whats in the news cycle , but I know which one Id prefer to be if my family suffered a tragedy ..

      Seperately, Its like the man who commits a henious crime, he is either described as ‘known to the Gardai’ (working class wearing a tracksuit) , or ‘from a good family’ (wears a suit, from a leafy surburb)

      1. Lilly

        ‘Known to Gardai’ is shorthand for ‘has a criminal record’. ‘From a good family’ = no history of criminality.

    6. Padi

      I find your comment quite sad really rather than controversial or annoying. Whatever brought on this comment and your underlying paranoia cannot be healthy. Your self-worth and ‘class’ obsession issues have no relevance to this tragedy.

    7. Quint

      Agree. The media reaction has been ridiculously OTT..18 pages in today’s Indo, for example, plus tonnes more coverage tomorrow and the weekend. It is a terrible tragedy and desperately sad for the families but a sense of perspective is needed.

  2. ESV

    Interview fine apart from stupid “aren’t we Irish best in the world/ the top of the list?” type final question. As Laura Whelan should know, the New York Times, for instance, ran a front-page story on the day of Michael Brown’s funeral (Brown was the teenager shot by a cop in Ferguson), calling him “no angel” and leaning on the fact that he sometimes smoked weed and listened to rap music to hint at aspersions on his character.

    (One other thing: in the “brief and sort-of-to-the-point” first-day article Sullivan refers to, I remember noting a line which I thought was slightly off, in which it was remarked that a police source had not been able to say “what the people were doing on the balcony at the time”. I thought I was being paranoid by seeing a hint of victim-blaming in that phrasing. What else would they be doing on a balcony but standing on it? Anyway, the next day’s report made the NYT’s attitude very clear.)

    1. Serval

      “What else would they be doing on a balcony but standing on it?”
      Dancing, Drinking, Jumping, Horseplay?

  3. Manta Rae

    “There is an element of victim blaming in this article but I believe it was inadvertent. I know, for example, the lead reporter on the article – whose name is Adam Nagourney – he’s a very good reporter, he’s a very solid fellow and I’ve had a lot of correspondence with him today [yesterday]. He feels terrible about this. I think he feels that he essentially made a mistake.”

    No mention of the senior editors who must have read through the piece before deciding it was ok to publish.

    Whelan should have pressed Sullivan on who allowed the article to be published in the first place, instead of allowing her to shift blame on to the hapless reporter.

  4. Jimmee

    Government minister Aodhan Ó Riordain?
    If it was any other minister I would sit up and take notice. But as for Aodhan minister for outrage, not so much.

    But still, it was fairly low from the NYT to publish that article the day after the tragedy.

  5. collynomial

    I think it’s a bit silly to ask the NYT to make an exception to its policy in one instance and cite a letter from the Irish Ambassador. Following the whole [REDACTED] issue one would expect RTÉ to be a little more defensive of journalistic independence.

  6. taralara

    Most people I know are more offended by The Irish Stars front page photo

    Typical 3rd day of a big news item when the story itself becomes the story. Its so tragic but Morning Ireland coverage this morning was bothering on mawkish.

  7. Zarathustra

    If it’s not at the top of the list I’d love to know what is. Journalists are word-smiths, they make their living from writing, and they understand the weightiness of words and the context within which they are supposed to be used. Margaret Sullivan is being disingenuous and she’s trying to bate a face on it now [‘inadvertent’ victim blaming?], and her implication is that it’s about perception, as opposed to the meaning of the actual words written in the context of the deaths of six young people when a balcony collapsed.

    1. Joe the Lion

      I see what you are saying but feel no shame in pointing out that you have overinflated expectations regardless no that the standard of journalism in this case was exceptionally poor.

  8. droid

    Victim blaming is endemic in the NYT and much of Irish journalism as well. In this case they just happened to go after targets that had more political clout behind them than usual – not that the protests aren’t justified of course, but it happens every day and passes almost without comment.

  9. Panty Christ

    Convenient rté communications broke down on 6 one broadcast when the reporter was pressed on the reaction to New York Times article in the u.s. was

    1. bisted

      …what is it with RTE communications at the moment…they seem to be going from bad to worse and the quality of sound on outside broadcasts is definitly not broadcast quality….they even nobbled Joe ffs!

  10. Dubloony

    They wrote an articles that has been heavily criticized.
    Both the article and the criticism of it is on their site.

    As newspapers go, that’s an understandable stance.

  11. Rotide peed on my lock

    “editors and reporters felt that they should develop the story in some way”
    Journo speak for, ‘people will read this, we need to get as much legs out of this as possible, let’s go with that “J1 is bad” angle and add to sensationalising the whole story… because… like clickbait is best served with tragic stories.

    Talking through your hole love…. “develop the story” ….will you ever fupp off !

    Hang your heads in shame NYT

  12. Odis

    Why does Laura Whelan ask that it be taken down or removed from the internet or what have you?
    As if you can undo what is written, and it somehow makes it better.
    Let it stand as a monument to their callous stupidity, bigotry, thoughtlessness and presumption.

  13. Friscondo

    In reading the coverage of this immensely sad event on US websites like CNN, Gawker and Buzzfeed, what has struck me as illustrative has been the utter heartlessness and cruelty of some, if not most of the comments by Americans. I understand the commenters are not necessarily representative of US as a whole, but there seems to be a contempt for non American life that could explain some of their governments more dubious actions around the world. The arrogance and victim blaming has been shocking. A lot of them seem p###ed off that these Irish came over and got themselves killed, thus exposing shoddy US building practices and embarrassing them. Some of the comments I’ve read have been vicious and hateful.

    1. Lilly

      I couldn’t get over one comment I read that went something like: ‘America is a harsh country, we have no workers’ rights, we need our sleep. These brats were having a party, no consideration, keeping people awake, sod them’. I would HATE to live in America.

      1. Mikeyfex

        They’re what I like to call ‘no-hopers’. There’s nothing you can say, you just have to move on.

  14. fluffybiscuits

    I worked in health and safety for a few years. It has always been spoken about that American corporations took a laissez faire approach to health and safety. A prime example of this is lack of ban on asbestos.

  15. Joe the Lion

    Let’s not talk about the substance of article which was that Irish folk drink too much and some of us behave like suck calves being let out at springtime. #soproudrightnow

    1. Rowsdower

      Where as American students are so respectful and dignified.

      Someone described it as a rape culture.

  16. Barry

    Apart altogether from the usual slagging in any commentary on anything in Ireland, there is the nonsense of the RTE lady suggesting that input fom the Irish ambassador and a second line Minister would cause the NYT to withdraw an already published article. Just wtf do we think we are?

    Add to that two former Presidents….. fine for them to express sorrow, but…..

    Just listening to an eminently sensible comment from someone on Moncrieff “over the top reaction” – quite.

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