Monday, August 10, 2009

EXCLUSIVE: NYT's Brad Stone Camouflages Backgrounds And Connections Of Anecdotal Sources In Today's Page-One Trend Story.

Ever wonder how those wacky NYT page-one trend stories get made?

Well, in the case of this morning's widely-discussed Brad Stone piece on people who go online when they wake up -- "Coffee Can Wait" -- every anecdotal example in the story comes from the small, insular world of Stone's present and former colleagues, and even from inside the NYT itself.

None are identified that way, of course. And in one case, Stone appears to have deliberately camouflaged a connection between two separate anecdotal examples, who in fact work closely together in the same office.


--Karl and Dorsey Gude, the lead example and the focus of the story's first seven paragraphs, are identified only as a family living in East Lansing, Michigan; Karl is described as an instructor at Michigan State University.

But in fact, Karl Gude worked from 1996 to 2006 as graphics director of Newsweek Magazine. Brad Stone was a technology correspondent at Newsweek from 1998 until 2006, when he joined the NYT. (By the way, Gude is a lecturer at MSU, not an instructor.)

--James Steyer -- whose wife and children appear in a page-one photo, and whose own picture dominates the page-three jump -- is identified in the story as the founder of Common Sense media, "a nonprofit that deals with children and entertainment."

But in fact, Steyer, an expert on the dependence of families on technology, has been quoted in 13 previous NYT business section articles, including three since April of 2009. To be fair, this marks Steyer's first appearance in a Brad Stone story; he has most recently appeared in stories by Stone's colleagues Brian Stelter and Tim Arango.

--Liz Perle is identified in the article only as "a mother in San Francisco who laments the early-morning technology immersion of her two teenage children."

But in fact, Perle is the editor in chief and co-founder, with Steyer, of Common Sense Media, and works in the same office. In this instance, it appears that Stone deliberately didn't include Perle's work title, so that readers would not be aware of the close connection between her and Steyer, and consider them two distinct examples.

--Gabrielle Glaser is identified in the story only as "of Montclair, N.J.," whose daughter now misses her school bus more regularly after getting an Apple laptop for her birthday.

But in fact, Glaser is a regular contributor to the NYT, who has had more than 50 bylines in the NYT since 1988. Her work appeared most recently in the NYT on April 19, 2009 on the front page of Sunday Business section. Glaser is married to Stephen Engelberg, a former reporter for the NYT, who now works as managing editor of ProPublica.

We don't yet know to what extent Stone made his editors aware, if at all, of the various personal and professional connections that tied his sources to each other, to him, and/or to the NYT itself. We emailed Stone and Larry Ingrassia, the NYT business editor, to whom Stone reports, for comment earlier today.

But we do know that readers expect, when they read a page-one NYT trend story, that the reporter has made ample effort to prove his thesis by casting a wide net for examples and evidence.

Readers don't presume -- unless told otherwise -- that the sources quoted in a story have worked with the reporter, have made regular appearances in the NYT, or (as in Glaser's case) have been paid by the NYT.

It may not violate the paper's rules, but in our view it betrays the reader's trust for a NYT reporter to have made so little effort to find examples outside his own insular world, and to have failed to thoroughly identify his sources for readers. Those failures diminish the value of a trend story dependent primarily on anecdotes, especially one given such prominent display on the NYT's front page.

UPDATE: The NYT has acknowledged, in a statement given to The NYTPicker that reporter Brad Stone did not inform his editors of his connections to the sources used in his page-0ne story today, and has conceded that Stone's "small number of examples" weren't enough to prove his thesis.

The statement, from NYT spokeswoman Catherine Mathis, goes on to declare: "If the editors of the article had known about the relationships among those quoted, that would have given them additional reason to ask for more examples."

The NYTPicker reported earlier today that all the examples used in Stone's story -- a trend piece about Americans' early-morning addiction to online activity, often before breakfast -- were people connected to Stone or the NYT in some direct way. Those connections weren't disclosed in the piece -- or, apparently, to Stone's editors.

In at least one instance, Stone deliberately camouflaged the connection between two separate anecdotes who worked in the same office. In another, Stone quoted a regular NYT contributor who has written for the business section. The story's lead example, Karl Gude, was a former colleague of Stone's from Newsweek.

Here is the NYT statement, in full, in response to questions directed to business editor Larry Ingrassia and reporter Brad Stone:

We believe the article identified a real trend, but that it should have adduced more evidence for it than the small number of examples provided. The reporter did in fact speak to a much wider group of people than those quoted, but chose those who seemed to have the most interesting observations and experiences. The fact that some were people he knew does not itself invalidate the thesis, though if the editors of the article had known about the relationships among those quoted, that would have given them additional reason to ask for more examples.


Anonymous said...

One gadget per disconnected distraction, updated every ever-shortening season. Why not brag on how the children's device addiction in your colleague's hyper-catalogue ordered kitchen, relates definitively to child miners, child soldiers, and other children.

Anonymous said...

I confess to being one of those hopelessly out-of-touch old folks who are always harking back to the way we used to do things in the newsbiz. But it has bothered me increasingly over the last couple of years the way NYT reporters enlist their colleagues' acquaintances as sources. Hardly a week goes by without an email solicitation with the subject line "Reporting help," followed by a description of some writer's story idea and a request that recipients forward contact info for people they know who reflect the story's thesis.
I don't recall if such an email went out seeking help for Mr. Stone, but this is the kind of shallow sourcing that could result if it had.
In my day (there I go again), we used to get on the phone or pound the pavement until we either found enough anecdotal examples to prove our thesis, or we abandoned the idea. In fact, it was considered bad form (and at many publications banned) to use as sources people who had relationships with people on the staff.
Should be still.

Anonymous said...

In my day, we called this a thumb-sucker. Lazy reporting. Too bad, because it's an interesting thesis.

Anonymous said...

I thought editors were supposed to ask reporters about sources and to guide the reporters writing and editing decisions. Saying that "if the editors had known..." is not an excuse for the paper of record. The editors are supposed to know before the article is published, not wonder if they should have asked when people complain!

Anonymous said...

Keep nailing them, NYTPicker. It's driving the editors crazy that you're out there.

I'm one New York Times reporter who thinks what you're doing is a great and needed public service. Brad Stone is a good journalist, but he blew it today and deserved to be called on it.

Anonymous said...

Ah this seems like small cheese to me. I'm not so upset about this one. But hey, we can't have Jason Blair everyday? Or was it Jayson? How time flies.

Anonymous said...

There's no difference between an instructor and a lecturer. Part-time teachers at universities, and I've been one, are called by both terms. Adjunct faculty is another term. None is a formal title. They all mean the same thing: You teach a course, or two, or three, on a fee-per-course basis, not on staff, and certainly not with tenure. Bottom line: Stick to the big stuff. This post was legitimate, but meaningless little wisecracks (lecturer vs. instructor) weaken your credibility.

Anonymous said...

Any time someone in a NYT trend story is identified as living in Montclair, NJ, there's a high likelihood they have some connection to someone at the Times.

Kirsten Gilbert Krenicky said...

The distinction between lecturer and instructor is valid. I am a middle school teacher for Florida Virtual School. Once I lectured at Rollins College in my hometown for the class of a friend. I would never, ever categorize myself as an instructor or faculty member at Rollins College. That would be misrepresentation.