The last 15 hours have provided a real-time lesson on the ethics of publishing serious accusations with an election looming.
Wednesday night, The New York Times quoted one woman who said Donald Trump groped her on an airplane in the early 1980s. Another woman told the Times Trump kissed her on the mouth without consent in 2005 at Trump Tower. The Times found no other witnesses to the incidents and there were no police reports.
Late Wednesday, People magazine published writer Natasha Stoynoff’s first-person account of how, in 2005, Trump pushed her against the wall and forced “his tongue down my throat” while she was reporting a story for the magazine.
And The Palm Beach Post ran the story of another woman who said Trump groped her 13 years ago at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Like the other stories, there were no witnesses, no way to independently confirm what happened.
These four stories suggest a pattern that will force every news organization to decide how to report the allegations, source the information and establish standards for referencing them in the remaining weeks before the election.
Trump has vehemently denied the allegations. He has threatened to sue The New York Times if it does not retract the story.
As the story unfolded on cable news, we began evaluating the decisions newsrooms faced when deciding whether and how to air these allegations. The list of questions worth considering include:
- How long should they cite and link to these original stories naming the women?
- How much weight should they place on the fact that, in each of these new cases, the women who claim to have been victimized are willing to be named?
- If they are reporting a story for the first time, how clearly have they investigated their leads? Did they go looking for sources, or did they come to you?
- How clear is it to the public that there are no official records of these claims, such as police reports?
- In the absence of records, what should reporters do to substantiate evidence of the claims? For instance, The New York Times interviewed the sister of a woman who was working in a New York office when Trump groped her. She recounted the call she received from her sister describing the incident. While it doesn’t prove the claim, corroborating interviews like this go a long way.
- Have reporters asked women why they didn’t disclose the incident earlier to establish a record of what happened? If not, they open themselves to questions from the general public about why they didn’t press for an explanation. Better to give the accuser and the accused a chance to answer tough questions.
- Who can provide context about why victims often do not report such attacks, how reliable memories of such incidents are and explain the laws surrounding sexual assault?
- What do reporters know about the reliability of the person making the accusations? The veracity of accusers are often called into question, and information from their lives may affect the story’s ultimate believability.
- How do these allegations line up with others that Trump has not denied? His own statements?
- What would be the likely effect of reporting the allegations? What might happen if you withhold the information?
- What is the tone and content of your entire body of work covering this candidate?
- How will you explain your decision-making to the public?
The Times’ decision to publish accusations against Trump is similar to a call made by the Los Angeles Times’ in 2003 to disclose accusations of groping made against California gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger just five days before the state’s recall election.
The Times had been investigating accusations of womanizing by Schwarzenegger for months and found six women who told stories of being sexually mistreated by Schwarzenegger. Two of the women allowed themselves to be named. Four didn’t. By Election Day, after the first story spread like wildfire, the list of women leveling accusations grew to 16. Eleven women were identified in print.
The editor of the Los Angeles Times, John Carroll, explained his decision to publish the allegations, summarizing the decisions the paper faced:
- Publish it late in the campaign. Given the passions of the election, this would touch off an outcry against the newspaper. We had no illusion that it would be warmly received.
- Hold it and publish after the election. This would prompt anger among citizens who expect the newspaper to treat them like adults and give them all the information it has before they cast their votes.
- Never publish it. This could be justified only if the story were untrue or insignificant.
In Schwarzenegger’s case, allegations of sexual misconduct had not been part of the campaign until the Los Angeles Times broke the story. The paper was also able to examine the aspiring governor’s schedule to confirm the stories lined up with some known facts — even if there was no direct evidence of the groping.
New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet defended his paper’s decision to publish the story in comments to CNN Wednesday night. “I think it is pretty evident this story falls clearly in the realm of public service journalism, and discussing issues that arose from the tape and his comments since it surfaced,” he said.
The argument for newsworthiness is supported by Trump’s denial of sexual assault allegations during the debate Sunday night. The allegations also dovetail with Trump’s statements on a now-infamous recording where he said he groped and kissed women uninvited and got away with it because he is a “star.”
Meanwhile, Trump is already using the story to paint journalists as biased, calling the article “phony” and “fabricated.”
In the hours after the Times broke the story, news organizations began repeating it without independent verification, a common practice in the news industry. CNN, USA Today and The Washington Post quickly picked up the Times’ story, and many others have since followed suit.
This isn’t unlike the 2007 story that wrecked John Edwards’ political career — except it came from a less reputable source. The National Enquirer broke the story, and other media quoted the Enquirer. The allegations — that Edwards fathered a child with his mistress — eventually turned out to be true.
So, given this history and the stakes at hand, what should we make of the Times’ decision to go with the story?
Al Tompkins’ conclusion
The weight of evidence that Trump assaulted women gets heavier by the day. But the unproven allegations in the latest round of stories isn’t enough to justify a she-said, he-denies story that provides little new insight and is impossible for the accused to disprove — especially with the election just a month away. If these cases, like the LA Times story from 2003, had been the public’s first exposure to a candidate’s propensity to force himself on women, the issue would be more urgent.
The growing body of evidence is enough to make a reasonable person say “maybe, probably, I believe, based on my experience these things happened.” But in journalism, that should not be enough to label a person as a sex abuser.
News organizations that report this story should provide ample disclosures about what they know, what they don’t know, how they know that, what they know about the source’s motivations and what they’ve done to verify the story.
Kelly McBride’s conclusion
As with the Los Angeles Times in 2003, news organizations dealing with accusations of sexual harassment against Trump today have high standards they must meet before going to press.
Named accusers are critical for credibility. Additional reporting that verifies the accusers were likely to be in the place where they intersected with Trump makes them more credible. Showing those reporting steps to the public, like People reporter Natasha Stoynoff did, makes the news organization more credible.
Finally, having additional, named sources with whom the accusers shared an account of the assault is also critical, as The New York Times did in quoting Brianne Webb, the sister of Rachel Crooks, who recalled her sister’s phone call immediately after. While many women who are assaulted tell no one, many others share certain details.
It may be tempting for news organizations to report or repeat these or similar allegations of Trump’s past assaults on women without taking these steps. While onerous, it’s important to not pile on without doing the journalism that gives the allegations credibility and allows the public to see the investigative reporting surrounding the allegations.