SOMETIMES, the apology is worse than the offence, writes Terry Prone.
That’s the truth of The New York Times’ mea culpa for a reference to Irish students and the J1 visa in an article about the Berkeley balcony collapse. They apologise for publishing something that was offensive only to the extent that it was misinterpreted by the reader. It was a concession, rather than a confession: the newspaper was sorry if readers got a particular impression from their report. It made things markedly worse.
It will be a validation of all that great newspaper stands for if it comprehensively addresses the problem it has created and, in the process, reminds itself, and the world, of its standards. The newspaper might start with the following draft: “The New York Times issued an apology last week. That apology was about a story on the young people who tragically lost their lives in the Berkeley balcony disaster. The apology was inadequate and offensive and this paper now revisits the issue to right a journalistic wrong.
“The story made inevitable the inference that these young people contributed to their own deaths. They did not.
“The story linked the issue of JI visa-holders behaving badly, at other times and in other places, to last week’s accident. There was no causative link.
“It is important that we acknowledge, in full, how far this story fell below our standards, starting with the headline ‘Deaths of Irish Students in Berkeley Balcony Collapse Cast Pall on Program.’ That was a double untruth.
“At the time it was written, The New York Times did not know that the balcony was so structurally flawed as to endanger anybody who stepped on to it. Nor did we know that this structure had been built by a company which, within the past year, has been fined $3m for substandard construction work elsewhere. Had we known these facts, the headline would have read ‘Deaths of Irish Students in Berkeley Balcony Collapse Cast Pall on Construction Company.’ However, the fact that we did not — at the time — have data to indict the company that constructed the balcony did not permit us to indict the dead and injured. We apologise for the unjustified rush to judgement manifest in our headline.
“Our story claimed that the J1 visa programme has become a source of embarrassment for Ireland. This claim was not adequately fact-checked, and we are now clear that it was, and is, untrue. The writers made the claim on the basis that the J1 scheme had been ‘marked by high-profile episodes involving drunken partying and the wrecking of apartments in places like San Francisco and Santa Barbara.’ No evidence proves that all, or even a majority, of those involved in those episodes were in America on J1 visas, and to state it as a certainty breached our best standards, as did the loose description of ‘places like San Francisco and Santa Barbara’, instead of identifying precisely where such incidents had happened and how many of them there were.
“Having — as we accept — misattributed embarrassment over the J1 scheme to Ireland as a nation, we went further. Later in the report, the writers described the program as ‘a source of discomfort,’ although the following paragraphs did not support this general allegation. “Instead, reference was made to one incident, in which Irish students wrecked a rented house, and comments — made at the time, not in the context of the balcony collapse — from a member of the editorial staff of The Irish Voice were quoted. This editor condemned the wrecking of the house. However, his comments (like the other comments quoted in this section of the story) did not suggest discomfort with the J1 scheme, but rather with the way one small group of students had abused it.
“We fully appreciate that the line taken in our story, if applied, for example, to pop musicians (a minority of whom have wrecked hotel rooms) would suggest that popular music, as a profession, is a source of discomfort and embarrassment to right-thinking people. This would be nonsense, just as it was nonsense to suggest that Ireland would, or should, feel national embarrassment over two incidents of bad behaviour by J1 holders.
“Our unequalled tradition of investigative journalism should have led us immediately to investigate the failure of the physical structure that caused the deaths and the track record of the company that had constructed it. Instead, we gave disproportionate space to complaints from neighbouring residents about the noise from the 21st birthday party (irrelevant to the tragedy, we accept) and used pejorative terms like ‘revelry’, which, in aggregate, conveyed the conclusion that the young party-goers either caused, or deserved, what happened to them. Neither is true.
“Because the bulk of our story gave a false impression of guilt on the part of the innocent dead and injured, The New York Times is breaking with tradition today. Normally, when material is presented to this paper that disproves a point made in a published story, The New York Times appends the correction to the story on its website, while also correcting the original text, thus allowing the essence of the original story to be available to visitors to our site.
However, the thrust, purpose and direction of the original story was to justify a pre-existing racist thesis — that Ireland’s J1 visitors to the United States are dangerous, drunken revellers and vandals, and that the scheme, which allows them to spend time in our country, is an embarrassment to Ireland. It is also clear that our writers, in support of the thesis, linked unrelated minor historic data to a current major tragedy and in a manner that is unacceptable to the New York Times.
Accordingly, and in this exceptional case, we have removed the original story from our website and request other media outlets, which may have posted it on their websites, to do likewise.
“Ireland’s former president, Mary McAleese, is just one of the many voices condemning our original story. We accept that hundreds of thousands of Ireland’s brightest and best students have come to this country on J1 visas. We accept that they have contributed to America and gained from the experience. We are deeply sorry to have tarred them with a brush dipped in the bad impressions left by a tiny minority of their peers.
“We are also sorry for an initial apology, which was at best self-serving, and which undoubtedly compounded our original offense and deepened the damage done by the first report. We will immediately review our systems for examination of reader complaints.
“The New York Times, in 1897, adopted the motto we still employ on our front page: ‘All the news that’s fit to print.’ Our report after the balcony deaths was not fit to print. It may have added to the grief of bereaved parents. It certainly offended the majority of our many Irish readers. We sincerely regret it.”
The story made inevitable the inference that these young people contributed to their own deaths
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved