NYT public editor: Nail salon probe 'went too far' in generalizing about industry

The New York Times

A blockbuster investigation from The New York Times that provoked officials to intervene in poor workplace conditions in nail salons throughout New York "went too far in generalizing about an entire industry," Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote Friday morning.

Sullivan's column was prompted by criticism from Jim Epstein, a reporter with the libertarian-leaning Reason magazine, who penned a three-part series that called into question aspects of the paper's reporting. Epstein's piece, which The Times previously declined to comment on, prompted Sullivan to conclude that The Times' investigation relied too heavily on ads for low-wage nail salon jobs that have been interpreted differently by critics of the investigation:

My take: The series and its author, Sarah Maslin Nir, had admirable intentions in speaking for underpaid or abused workers. And the investigation did reveal some practices in need of reform. But, in places, the two-part investigation went too far in generalizing about an entire industry. Its findings, and the language used to express them, should have been dialed back — in some instances substantially.

The Times' investigation, a two-part longread that focused on low wages and hazardous health conditions in nail salons throughout New York City, has been targeted by criticism before. Richard Bernstein, a former reporter for The New York Times who owns day spas in Manhattan, wrote a critique of the piece for the New York Review of Books in July that triggered a back-and-forth with the paper over the details of the investigation. The investigation spurred New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign legislation providing greater protection for workers in the state's nail salons.

This isn't the first time Sullivan has critiqued attention-grabbing stories from The Times. After the paper published its article on harsh workplace conditions at Amazon, Sullivan said the paper's investigation relied too heavily on anecdotes from employees — a position that prompted pushback from Executive Editor Dean Baquet. She also leveled criticism at the paper's handling of an error-riven story about the private email address of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, prescribing "less speed" and "more transparency" for the Times.

Sullivan concludes by recommending the Times continue its fair-minded reporting on reactions from salon owners and dispassionately "re-examine its original findings."

Correction: A previous version of this story referred to New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet as Margaret Sullivan's "boss." This is incorrect. As part of a newsroom hierarchy intended to ensure the independence of the public editor, Sullivan reports to New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.


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