NYT Public Editor: Yeah, We're Overusing Unnamed Government Sources–And It's Getting Us In Trouble

Posted: Dec 20, 2015 12:15 PM

The New York Times found themselves the crosshairs for their reporting on the San Bernardino shooting. No, it wasn’t their absurd article from their editorial board, which called not only for a renewed ban on assault rifles, but for those Americans who owned them to turn them over for the good of the country, or something. It was their article that the shooters, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, had their radical sentiments posted on social media. FBI Director James Comey undercut that narrative last week, where he said such developments were “garble.”

The Times Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, said that a “systematic change” was needed for future reporting, especially the possibility that the publication cut down on unnamed sources. She included the paragraph, which, as the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noted, “set fire to the news system.” It was written by fellow Times reporters Matt Apuzzo, Michael S. Schmidt, and Julia Preston on December 12.

Tashfeen Malik, who with her husband carried out the massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., passed three background checks by American immigration officials as she moved to the United States from Pakistan. None uncovered what Ms. Malik had made little effort to hide — that she talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.

She said she supported it. And she said she wanted to be a part of it.

Then, FBI Director Comey’s news conference in New York City on December 16, where he was attending the NYPD’s Shield Conference. He said that there was no social media presence by either Farook or Malik after they had become radicalized. Instead, they communicated through private messages.

“So far, in this investigation we have found no evidence of posting on social media by either of them at that period in time and thereafter reflecting their commitment to jihad or to martyrdom. I’ve seen some reporting on that, and that’s a garble,” said Comey.

Sullivan noted that the Times editors she spoke to admitted this report was a mistake, and that there may be an issue using unnamed sources so often. Yet, it might not be feasible to cut them out altogether. Moreover, Executive Editor Dean Baquet defended Apuzzo and Schmidt as reporters. Washington editor Bill Hamilton agreed with Baquet, who also said the two have broken some good stories. Hamilton added that their beats, national security and law enforcement, are “two of the most sensitive” in Washington. We shall see if any of these changes are going to be put into practice at the Times.

I have two major and rather simple questions: How did this happen? And how can The Times guard against its happening again? (As many readers have noted, some very critically, two of the authors of this article, Matt Apuzzo and Michael S. Schmidt, also wrote the flawed story in July that reported that Hillary Clinton would be the target of a criminal investigation by the Justice Department because of her email practices while secretary of state. Reporting by the third reporter on the current article, Julia Preston, who covers immigration, was restricted to the visa-vetting process.)

I talked on Friday to the executive editor, Dean Baquet; to one of his chief deputies, Matt Purdy; and to the Washington editor, Bill Hamilton, who edited the article. All described what happened as deeply troubling. Mr. Baquet said that some new procedures need to be put in place, especially for dealing with anonymous sources, and he said he would begin working on that immediately.

“This was a really big mistake,” Mr. Baquet said, “and more than anything since I’ve become editor it does make me think we need to do something about how we handle anonymous sources.”


“Our sources misunderstood how social media works and we didn’t push hard enough,” said Mr. Baquet, who read the article before publication. He said those sources apparently did not know the difference between public and private messages on social-media platforms.


The Times needs to fix its overuse of unnamed government sources. And it needs to slow down the reporting and editing process, especially in the fever-pitch atmosphere surrounding a major news event. Those are procedural changes, and they are needed. But most of all, and more fundamental, the paper needs to show far more skepticism – a kind of prosecutorial scrutiny — at every level of the process.

Two front-page, anonymously sourced stories in a few months have required editors’ notes that corrected key elements – elements that were integral enough to form the basis of the headlines in both cases. That’s not acceptable for Times readers or for the paper’s credibility, which is its most precious asset.

If this isn’t a red alert, I don’t know what will be.