March 23, 2015

The New York Times

Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of The New York Times, admitted Monday that an earlier criticism of The New York Times’ coverage of the unrest Ferguson, Missouri “was substantially flawed.”

In hindsight, Sullivan found fault with her previous column that called a Times report on the police shooting of black teenager Michael Brown “an object lesson in the problems of dubious equivalency.”

Sullivan’s original column criticized the paper for using anonymous sources to include a version of events that contrasted with the then-prevailing narrative that Brown had his hands up before he was shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson. It read, in part:

The Times is asking readers to trust its sourcing, without nearly enough specificity or detail; and it sets up an apparently equal dichotomy between named eyewitnesses on one hand and ghosts on the other.

In her latest post, Sullivan writes that news of the Justice Department’s exoneration of Wilson makes clear “it was important to get that side of the story into the paper.”

I still believe, as I did then, that the description of the sourcing was confusing. But that’s a relatively minor issue, and understandable in the rush of breaking news. The main thing is that The Times did its job in describing what were indeed “conflicting reports,” and getting them on the record in whatever way was possible at the time. That served readers well.

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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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