Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

NYT journalist: I am not a neutral observer–can I still be a fair reporter?

with 28 comments

Tracy Tullis

Tracy Tullis

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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Written by Alison McCook

July 30th, 2015 at 11:30 am

Comments
  • Ruth SoRelle July 30, 2015 at 12:39 pm

    Back when I was medical writer at the Houston Chronicle, I was frequently asked by college classes what it is like to be a reporter. I reminded them that to be a reporter is to be on the outside, looking in. Once you enter the story, once you make your position (and we all have them) known, then you should no longer cover it. I think it shocked many would-be journalists to realize this, but I think it is important to remember. When we left daily journalism, my husband and I put bumper stickers on our cars — the first time that we had ever revealed our political leanings as adults.

  • Ferrel Christensen July 30, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    Though *relatively* speaking this story of improper journalism is minor, I am very pleased that Retraction Watch is concerning itself with more than just science journals. Your stories on the Rolling Stone fiasco are even better. The sad truth is, journalists collectively promote far more falsehoods than scientists. Keep it up as much as you can.
    –Professor F. C.

  • Michael July 30, 2015 at 1:06 pm

    After reading this I get the strong sense that Tracy Tullis still doesn’t quite appreciate where the problem lies. Isn’t the issue here that once her opinion (i.e. online petition) is part of the public domain, all appearance of neutrality goes out of the window? Of course, in a vacuum the quality of reporting on a subject can be completely independent of context and I am sure most of us can write a fairly balanced article on issues for which we have very strong opinions. But there always is publicly accessible context and if that context does not match the nuanced tone of the published report there is a problem. Said differently, If I read an article on climate change and I find out that the author has donated money to a political campaign that denies the existence of man-made global warming, it doesn’t change the quality of the article itself – but it will dramatically reduce the impact it has on me. I am sure that’s what the NYT is worried about, not the quality of reporting.

    • Federico D July 31, 2015 at 3:51 pm

      > If I read an article on climate change and I find out that the author has donated money to a political campaign that denies the existence of man-made global warming, it doesn’t change the quality of the article itself – but it will dramatically reduce the impact it has on me.

      But could you assume the author has not a specific bias only because you cannot find any donation in one sense or the other?

    • CG August 2, 2015 at 6:22 pm

      This freelance’s mistake, it seems to me, pales besides the fact that the vast majority of media outlets don’t admit, on a daily basis, that they are *businesses*, often corporate businesses — their highest goal is *not* to “tell the truth,” or even to “be fair,” but to make money for stockholders. Hey, I love the NYT, it’s been my go-to paper for decades…but “All the News that’s Fit to Print”? Just think of all the foreign bureaus eliminated, the reporters let go, the buregeoning of opinion-based columns, the entertainment industry columns (we learn every week, in the Arts section, which movies are ruling in the box office, even though it’s clearly a *business* story and tells us *zero* about the quality of a film). At least Tullis *admitted* her subjectivity….

  • Scott July 30, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    I understand why rules like this are in place, but this is insane. I can’t believe she even had to apologize for this. If she presented a fair and balanced article (and apparently, she did), then that should be the end of it. I mean, it’s not like she’s a PETA employee. She signed a petition months earlier that isn’t even mentioned in the article. That’s hardly a cause for real concern.

    • Brian Jones August 2, 2015 at 3:45 pm

      I’m sorry you don’t get it, but it’s journalism 101. Publicly acknowledged animal rights activists don’t get to write news articles about animal rights. Op-eds, certainly.

      But once she signed the petition – and then pitched the Times — she opened the Times up for charges of bias. It’s really not about what she wrote, how fairly she reported it, or how good the piece was. From an institutional standpoint, she put the Times in a bad position, of having its objectivity in news stories questioned. (And it really doesn’t matter how big or small the subject in question is.)

      • Scott August 3, 2015 at 1:07 pm

        As I said, I understand why rules like this are in place, so I do “get” it. I just don’t see it as completely black and white in all instances, regardless of the what the letter of the law says. I think we can let a little bit of common sense into the equation. Calling her a “publically-acknowledged animal rights activist” is a bit of a stretch. As others have said, interest in certain topics doesn’t develop in a vacuum. Of course journalists have opinions. If they do a good job of keeping their bias out of their pieces, that should be good enough.

  • Jeffrey M Dickemann July 30, 2015 at 7:56 pm

    As someone who has lived through most of the 20th century, I’m saddened (but not surprised) to see what this controversy reflects. Over the decades, a false assumption of “neutrality” has come to pervade journalism. There can be no such thing, and it’s a pity that Ms. Tullis is unclear about her allegiances, to “objectivity” or to her right to opinions, both in her daily life and in her journalism. There was a time when opinions and commitments could be expressed openly by commentators of all kinds, allowing the reader a far more accurate assessment of the statement. That time is long past. Like so much in this society today, journalism strains for a false ideal. So sad.

    • Steve August 6, 2015 at 8:34 am

      Of course we all have biases. Nobody is pretending that any reporter is completely free of bias. And no news story in history has ever been completely free of bias either, because the writer always has to make some presumption of what’s important on the part of the reader. I don’t think most readers assume the story they’re reading is written by a completely impartial source. But that’s beside the point. It’s the appearance of an obvious bias that matters. Elected officials are generally prohibited from voting or taking part in discussions involving businesses they have a personal stake in because no matter how impartial they may try to be, there’s always the appearance of impropriety. This is not exactly the same thing, of course, but it’s in the same category. When I was a journalist, I never signed a petition for anything, for this very reason.

  • qqaaqq July 30, 2015 at 9:27 pm

    I’m actually concerned that the author here regrets “the petition and the trouble it caused.” As stated by posters above, bias is inherent, whether or not explicitly stated:

    Whether or not the author signed said petition, she still has *exactly the same bias* in reporting the story. The only thing not signing the petition does is make it more difficult for readers to know what her bias is. If there is not strong personal benefit (conflict of interest), then what’s the harm?

    Interesting, in the case presented by the author, the NYT is a for profit publicly traded company whose primary purpose is shareholder profits. A public political statement (or even any news article) on the first amendment is fraught with bias AND conflict of interest.

    The notion of a neutral observer is just stupid. The notion that a lack of public statements implies a neutral observer is even stupider. And even more ridiculous is the idea that a reporter presenting “both sides” of an argument as told by two groups with direct conflict of interest (e.g. animal rights non profit execs make money and have prestige and zoo execs have the same).

  • paul July 31, 2015 at 1:48 am

    Nice article, my take on these, a neutral observer in journalism means exploring all sides of an issue and reporting the findings accurately. Members of the public should never be used to exaggerate the importance of a story.

    As a journalist you have a responsibility to examine your motives and ensure that your own personal feelings and emotions do not influence what you report, who you talk to, or determine which elements of the story you highlight.

    You also need to think carefully about the language and tone you use to ensure that it doesn’t give an inaccurate and unfair representation of the facts.

    Your job is to inform the public debate, not manipulate that debate. You are working on behalf of the public, not using them for your own ends.

    A journalist should have no motivation other than presenting sourced and verified facts. You should not have a desired outcome – that’s activism. And some would argue that journalism and activism are not compatible. You do your job regardless of the outcome.

    • Ferrel Christensen July 31, 2015 at 2:26 pm

      Earlier here I expressed my pleasure that RW was showing concern about journalism ethics, not just the science variety. But as a long-time ethics teacher, I am puzzled at all the commentary, with even a second RW email reporting some of it, over such a trivial, and arguably NOT unethical, case, given the vast amounts of genuinely corrupt journalism out there–often covered up by other journalists unless they some have a special motive. I hope all the attention to this trivial case is a harbinger of attention to the ones that really matter.

      • Theresa Defino August 1, 2015 at 9:14 pm

        You’re 100% wrong. NYT is the most important newspaper/outlet in the country, arguably the world. NYT’s reaction and essentially forcing the writer to make a public mea culpa is a huge deal in my profession.

  • Anonymous July 31, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    Common as it is, having a biased position should be assumed as the standard in journalism, and journalist should declare neutrality instead. Then, efforts should be made to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the journalist indeed does have a neutral position. Of course this would be reserved for exceptional circumstances. It’s more realistic to assume that everybody has views and opinions, even if they try to hide them from view to give an impression of neutrality.

  • Wendy in Washington July 31, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    The underlying notion that there exists an objective person is false. There are ignorant or uninformed people who might not have an opinion on the matter, but I wouldn’t want them reporting on anything I cared about. Basically, someone who cares about animal issues is a good person to report on animal issues, as long as the article is balanced. Interesting that the financial contribution to PETA didn’t disturb anyone–I guess because that contribution is private. A little hypocritical: public stances, even a click on a petition, are taboo, but private contributions–much more meaningful–don’t matter.

  • Don Kirk August 1, 2015 at 9:20 pm

    She makes a convincing, honest case, but I still don’t think she should have signed the petition. In a lot of years in this business, I’ve always avoided signing anything like that for the reason that it conflicts with any attempt at covering anything — fairly or, for that matter, unfairly. Nor would I consider a bumper sticker other than one I had for many year on a car, long since gotten rid of, on the Philadelphia Phillies. Nor do I think there’s any defense for James Risen’s criticism outside of his reporting.

  • Theresa Defino August 2, 2015 at 1:01 am

    There is a basic misunderstanding of what actual journalism is. It’s not just repeating what we are told and presenting that uncritically. “Balance” doesn’t mean you print something you know is wrong just because it contrasts with something else. We journalists are not mere observers. In a nutshell, we gather as much information as we can, synthesize it, analyze it–use our critical thinking skills. Sometimes this a preponderance of “evidence” leads to conclusions that we substantiate.

    This is no way means we are presenting our “opinion” or have some kind of bias. It is more akin (loosely) to being a judge (as well as being the prosecutor and defense attorney). We do a disservice if all we do is repeat what people say. We are reporters, not repeaters. The good ones are, anyway.

    In the old days, reporters stayed on a beat long enough to develop an expertise to know when they’re being BS’d and write stories that reflect a deep knowledge of the topic. With the near slaughter of the profession and everyone and his brother calling himself a “citizen journalist” and the need to feed Twitter and produce “click bait,” the standards are down to zero in some places.

    You think Dr. Oz’s crew (or “sciencebabe’) wrestles with the same issues as the NYT? How many of them know anything about libel or have taken an ethics course?

  • Allison August 2, 2015 at 4:15 am

    I am sitting on the other side of this fence. Ms. Tullis is a professional journalist, I am a professional scientist with a background in zoos and aquariums. I understand that Happy’s situation is extremely nuanced and that her caretakers – who work weekends and holidays for a salary so low they often have to consider public assistance – would never allow anything but what is best for her. I also understand the Zoo’s hesitation to speak, as traditionally these are “no win” situations for zoos.

    I know *very little* about reporting or journalistic integrity. I depend on the NYT and their reporters to provide me with fair, unbiased stories. If I read a story which I know to be gleaned from biased websites and organizations, where does that leave me? How can I be sure other things I read are unbiased? i need to know my reporter doesn’t have an agenda. And if Ms. Tullis still believes the bottom line here is that “the Bronx zoo keeps an elephant alone”, then she is promoting an agenda because making such a black and white statement makes it painfully obvious that she is totally unaware of the nuances of the issue.

  • Allison August 2, 2015 at 9:36 am

    Apologies for a barely coherent last sentence –

    “And if Ms. Tullis still believes the bottom line here is that “the Bronx zoo keeps an elephant alone”, then she is promoting an agenda – because making such a black and white statement means to me that that she is totally unaware of the nuances of the issue.”

    • Theresa Defino August 2, 2015 at 10:46 am

      So the elephant isn’t alone?

      • Allison August 2, 2015 at 12:01 pm

        She is, but it’s unfair for us as outsiders to judge her well being on only that factor. There are many many things to consider. Elephants (and other intelligent animals) bond very deeply to their keepers. There is a solo elephant in another zoo who very obviously has preferred her keepers over other elephants since she was young. Older animals do not do well with change – it can be extremely stressful. And then the logistics of moving an elephant are also potentially stressful enough to cause physical and mental harm. In addition, in a place like the Bronx Zoo, daily enrichment (like toys or puzzles) is standard. There are so many factors beyond what folks outside the field perceive, and perhaps the most important of all is to trust her keepers to do what’s best for her – no one else knows her or her needs better.

        • qqaaqq August 3, 2015 at 10:58 pm

          This may or may not be a well-done article… I certainly have zero capacity to assess it. Your points seem reasonable but I’m not sure that they really get to the heart of the matter. The NYT’s entire issue with the article is that the author signed a stupid petition. Had she not done so, everything would have been A-OK in their book. And that is absolutely absurd. The article would be exactly the same quality either way whether or not she signed any petitions.

          • Theresa Defino August 3, 2015 at 11:11 pm

            Perhaps more to the point, the story never would have been done, thus this elephant’s plight not well known, if she hadn’t signed the petition. That’s where the story idea came from.

    • brooke southall November 23, 2016 at 1:52 am

      The New York Times is likely to have go deep into the bin of mankind to find a reporter who hasn’t shown some love for an elephant in their lifetime. If a social animal like an elephant is living in the equivalent of solitary confinement then that is a story that is only going to spark a writer to write because some kernel of compassion is stirred. It is newsworthy. Writers, unlike some scientists, have hearts. Some of these comments against Tullis really sound like a desperate effort to be negative and hang on a technicality. There’s bad biased journalism out there. This ranks low on the list and the writer shows she is unlikely to be a repeat offender.

  • Eli Rabett August 2, 2015 at 10:00 am

    Nobel Laureate Sherwood Rowland: “What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”

  • Todd August 7, 2015 at 5:02 pm

    maybe I missed it but why not advocate that
    a) she sign the petition (and any others she believes in)
    b) she disclose such facts when an article is published
    Isn’t it better to have the disclosure and additional information for readers to consider?
    Aside from the author comments, I also haven’t noticed if anyone pointed out the fact the zoo seems to have taken more action to make the disclosure for her than making a sound argument that it’s treating the animal properly. Seems that issue is still out there and needs to be resolved.

  • LauraMcT September 14, 2015 at 4:19 pm

    I found her comments really disingenuous – is she seriously comparing her “advocacy” and support of groups like PETA, let alone her admittedly mindless clicking in support of petitions on which she has likely done ZERO research, and comments regarding the perceived infringement of First Amendment rights by the government?

    Methinks she needs not only a lesson in what the First Amendment actually says but also in basic research. And she might want to read an article of five on confirmation bias.

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