Wick Communications

Is it OK to change that opinion?

In Ethics on 14 Jul 2016 at 4:47 pm
Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 2.56.23 PM

The other pride of Colorado State University, Liz Spayd. Via New York Times

The New York Times’ new public editor, Liz Spayd, took up an interesting topic when she addressed the newspaper’s decision – made in conjunction with an opinion writer – to massage a pointed piece penned in the wake of police shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota. The Times toned down Michael Eric Dyson’s piece, headlined, “What White America Fails to See,” in the wake of a sniper’s attack on white officers in Dallas.

Times’ Opinion desk editors and Dyson both say they wanted to be sensitive to those hurting after the latest attack, so they changed the original piece significantly, both online and for the weekend print editions. The story now contains a one-line explanation of the changes: “This essay has been updated to reflect news developments.”

Spayd quotes reader Rand Richards Cooper, who had questions:

My questions are: Is it acceptable to change an opinion piece this substantially once it has been published? Do such changes imply that the opinions originally expressed in the piece are no longer valid? That the author no longer stands by them? Did the impetus for these changes come from the writer, or the newspaper? And what about the “record,” or perhaps the imprint, made by the originally published piece? Is it simply gone forever? What are the journalistic/ethical considerations involved in making the original essay vanish in this way?

Spayd acknowledges that these are good questions, but she eventually sides with the author and editors. She thinks the changing dynamics of the news demanded a nuanced editing of the piece. She does fault editors for not being more transparent in their explanation.

My inclination, however, is to side with Mr. Richards Cooper. I think many – heck, all – of our stories and opinion pieces are snapshots in time that can’t be divorced from the point at which they were written. Consider more stark examples. Many newspapers argued for appeasing Germany prior to World War II. If these newspapers were digitizing their archives, should they feel free to scrub that historic record? My own newspaper wrote some hateful things about Japanese-Americans at the time? Should I change that history now that our sensitivities have changed? …

I don’t think so. I would have let the piece stand online and offered Dyson a chance to write new one or edit the old one for the future print editions. Then I would have explained the change from the online version.

Here’s a slightly different example. I heard from a local politician today who wants me to change a Half Moon Bay Review headline from 2015. The headline reads, “Harbor Commissioners seek to remove Brennan from presidency.” It was completely accurate. (Brennan would later hand in the gavel of her own accord.) But she doesn’t think the effort itself was fair and now that she is running for office again would like for that not to show up on Google searches.

I told her, “no.” The story was fair and accurate and the story in 2015 remains part of the history of her service and the community, regardless of events since.

These are difficult questions. I understand if you feel differently and would like to hear it.

(And in the interest of full disclosure, Spayd and I are both graduates of Colorado State University. We met once, but I’m sure she doesn’t remember me!)

Clay

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