December 19, 2015

An error-laden story that faulted federal officials for failing to properly screen San Bernardino shooter Tashfeen Malik has revealed “a system failure” at The New York Times, Executive Editor Dean Baquet said Friday in an interview with Public Editor Margaret Sullivan.

The story, which was published on the front page of Sunday’s edition of The New York Times, erroneously stated that Malik “talked openly on social media” about violent jihad. It appeared to be an egregious oversight on the government’s part that enabled a dangerous criminal to enter the United States despite three background checks.

In fact, Malik made the statements in question via private messages on a dating site, as disclosed by FBI director James Comey Wednesday in a statement to the press. The original incorrect claim was sourced to “accounts from law enforcement officials” before The Times scrubbed the information from the story and appended a corrective editor’s note.

The incorrect article was matched by a slew of news organizations including Fox News, The International Business Times and UPI, The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noted Wednesday.

In his exchange with Sullivan, Baquet said the story has prompted newsroom brass to “do something” about the paper’s anonymous sourcing policy, though he stopped short of saying that The Times should ban the sources entirely.

Sullivan concurred. “If this isn’t a red alert, I don’t know what will be,” she wrote.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that “American immigration officials” talked on social media about violent jihad. As the story notes elsewhere, the Times reported that officials said Malik talked about jihad.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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