The Public Editor Weighs In

For this post, I read a post from the New York Times’ previous public editor, Margaret Sullivan. She was the fifth public editor for the Times. In class, we talked about the structural biases of journalism, including maintenance of the status quo, which led to a discussion of how the New York Times and the Washington Post both published a preponderance of articles about Hilary Clinton during the democratic primaries, with relatively few about her challenger Bernie Sanders. The article I chose by Margaret Sullivan is titled “Were Changes to Sanders Article Stealth Editing?” and was published in March of 2016.


The post by Sullivan points out that Sanders supporters are unhappy with the Times, but points to an article that originally praised Sanders but, through editing, was changed to be more critical of the congressman. Over the course of the day, the article in question was changed so much that many people noticed. Sullivan gives three examples of outside sources calling out the Times for changing the article.


In addition to many readers, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said that the Times was “caving in” to Hillary Clinton’s interests. Sullivan explains the concept of stealth editing – “making substantial changes to articles without explaining that to readers.” Readers were confused and upset that such big changes were being made to the content of a story, rather than just making corrections.


This is when Sullivan decided to look internally into the editing staff of the New York Times. The author of the article said it was an editing decision, so Sullivan focused on the editing staff. What I find interesting is that she uses the full names of people on staff – I was expecting her to avoid using names for some kind of privacy, but that does not seem to be the case. She specifically pointed out Matt Purdy, who thought the article needed “more perspective” about Sanders. He also talked about giving the story more context. Sullivan then clears accusations that the Clinton campaign reached out to the Times.


Sullivan clearly doesn’t agree with the editing staff. The editing staff said that they were adding nuance and depth, but Sullivan point-blank stated that she doesn’t agree. She states that the revisions should have been noted and that they changed the tone and substance of the article.


Sullivan points out that the Times could easily start up a timestamped update system, and suggests that it does so.


This particular post was updated, and the update is my favorite part of the article:

A number of readers have made a point that I should have made earlier. The Sanders article was not a breaking news story, but rather a look back at his legislative record. Given its sensitivity and importance (it ended up on the front page on the morning of major primaries), why didn’t senior editors vet the story and make all the editing changes before it went online? Digital platforms, after all, are not a test run, and non-urgent stories don’t need to be pushed out as quickly as this one apparently was. I would also observe that the “context” added here looked a lot like plain-old opinion to this reader, and quite a few others.

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