We present a guest post from Tracy Tullis, author of a recent story in the New York Times that — as we reported — the editors said afterwards they “would not have assigned” to her if they’d known about her “involvement in a cause related to news coverage.” This is her side of the story.
Last month I wrote a story for The New York Times called “The Loneliest Elephant,” about an elephant named Happy who has been kept alone at the Bronx Zoo for the past nine years. Animal welfare groups say she should be released to a wildlife sanctuary where she could have the companionship of other elephants; the Bronx Zoo says she’s fine where she is.
The day after the article was published in the Sunday paper, The Times learned I had signed an online petition in support of sending the elephant to a sanctuary (I signed it last April, three weeks before I pitched the article). As Retraction Watch has reported, The Times added an editor’s note to the online version of the article, explaining that signing the petition was “at odds with The Times’s journalistic standards.”
The New York Times Ethical Journalism handbook, which I received six months ago when I wrote my first freelance article for The Times, warns that writers should do nothing that “might reasonably raise doubts about their ability or The Times’s ability to function as neutral observers in covering the news”: no donations to political candidates, no marches or rallies, no buttons or bumper stickers. The handbook doesn’t mention petitions, physical or digital (it was published in 2004, before clickable appeals became commonplace), but it makes sense that signing them would likewise be considered a violation.
There’s a backstory, though, as I suppose there always is. When Retraction Watch asked if I would be interested in telling it, however, I hesitated. My inclination was to curse my mistake, apologize privately to my editor (which I have done), and put it all behind me. But I think the incident raises pertinent questions about how media organizations handle issues of neutrality—and about what happens when the institutions they cover critically accuse writers of bias. And so I agreed to write this.
“The Loneliest Elephant” appeared on June 28, on the front page of the Sunday Metropolitan section. It was a big break for me. My editor, Bill Ferguson, who is the deputy editor of the Metropolitan section, told me he thought it was one of the best articles they’d published this year.
But that buoyant moment didn’t last. On Monday, the editors told me the paper received a call from the Bronx Zoo’s publicity department. The zoo had found my name on one of the online petitions lamenting Happy’s solitary existence (there are at least five of them). So the editors added the explanatory note to the article saying they “would not have assigned” me the piece had they known I’d signed such a petition.
The truth is, I am (or have been until now) a prolific signer of online petitions. (It’s so easy: just a click of the mouse.) At least a dozen land in my inbox every week, many of them alerting me to the suffering of animals. I signed (or clicked) without giving much thought to whether it was appropriate for a journalist to do so—to me, it barely registered as an act of advocacy.
The other day I checked my trashed emails for “thanks for signing!” messages, and I found that last April, the month I added my name to the Happy petition, I also clicked petitions against greyhound racing, wolf puppy fur farms, and deadly wild animal traps; and in favor of protecting prairie dogs, polar bears, and pitbulls.
But the petition about Happy stood out from the crowd. Here was one of the world’s most prestigious zoos, accused of inhumanely treating an intelligent and sensitive animal. I thought it might make an interesting article.
I started Googling, reading, and making calls. By the time I decided there was indeed a compelling tale in the battle over Happy, and wrote up a pitch for the Times, I’d forgotten all about the petition I’d signed—in fact, I’d even forgotten that it was the petition that first alerted me to the story.
In retrospect, I see that signing the Happy appeal, and others like it, was a naïve mistake. The last thing I wanted to do is create trouble for Bill Ferguson, who is an incisive and thoughtful editor, and also an extremely empathetic person.
At the same time, the incident has made me think about the standards of journalistic objectivity.
Of course I understand the Times’s rules against overt partisanship. But journalists are rarely 100 percent neutral on the stories we cover. So shouldn’t the standard be the quality of the work itself? If the article is judicious and balanced, should readers care what the writer’s personal opinions might be? We all have them.
When I first pitched the Happy story, Ferguson was interested but concerned that my query sounded one-sided. (I had included several quotes from zoo critics, but none from the zoo.) He asked if I could write an even-handed story; I said yes.
I also told him that I’d made small contributions over the years to various animal welfare organizations, including PETA, which is mentioned in the article. The ethics handbook cautions writers about financial donations too, but Ferguson didn’t respond to that part of my email, which I assumed meant it wasn’t an issue.
Though the Bronx Zoo seemed reluctant from the outset to cooperate with the story—they deflected my requests for an interview for a month—once they did relent, the story became more nuanced. (In the end, the zoo’s director was given more space than any other person in the piece.) When I filed the story, Ferguson said it was a “fantastic story,” and praised it for being “understated.” Shouldn’t that be the most important factor?
Last February, New York Times reporter James Risen posted on Twitter some strongly worded criticisms of the White House’s record on First Amendment rights, including his contention that “the Obama Administration is the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.” One would expect journalists to have strong opinions about press freedom (and especially Risen, who spent years fighting off the government’s demands he reveal confidential sources). So when some media outlets reported on Risen’s comments, The Times’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, weighed in on the matter. “Maybe the tenor of Mr. Risen’s tweets wasn’t very Timesian,” she wrote. “But the insistence on truth-telling and challenging the powerful is exactly what The Times ought to stand for.”
Of course, the topic of his tweets make this a special case, since the paper has a particular interest in First Amendment issues. As Sullivan noted, the top Times editors essentially agree with Risen’s un-Timesian remarks. But they also know that his editorializing didn’t compromise his ability to do his job. After all, if a reporter can still cover the topic responsibly and fairly, then perhaps signing a petition, or joining a march, or posting on Twitter, should be irrelevant.
Obviously The Times usually prefers a stricter line between reporting and advocacy, and so I deeply regret the petition and the trouble it caused. I also regret that my mistake has deflected attention from the controversy I reported in the piece itself. Because the basic truth of the article is unchanged: the Bronx Zoo keeps an elephant alone. To my mind at least, that remains the real story.
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