By Arthur S. Brisbane (New York Times)
May 19, 2012
The New York Times's two-part series on the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community two weeks ago was an eye-opener, exploring the plight of child sexual abuse victims and their advocates as they struggled for justice in the face of religious and cultural pressures to keep the problem under wraps.
The impact of the exposure by The Times was stunning, according to Ben Hirsch, co-founder and president of Survivors for Justice, an advocacy group for victims. The mayor spoke out on the issue. TV crews poured into the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, where The Times focused its coverage. Interview requests from other news media piled up.
"In the six-plus years I've been working on exposing the issue of child sexual abuse within the ultra-Orthodox community," he wrote to me in an e-mail last week, "I have never experienced anything like what I've been dealing with since last Thursday. It is no exaggeration to say that the world changed for us" when The Times published its articles.
Such is the power of The Times. It can take a complex and difficult issue and, with its unmatched reporting resources, pull together in-depth work that tells a complete story to a vast audience.
But what about the other, smaller news organizations and independent journalists who got there ahead of The Times, breaking important elements of the story first, laboring in the face of intense community opposition? No credit went to them in The Times's series.
As appreciative as Mr. Hirsch said he was for The Times's powerful articles, he expressed dismay at the paper's "riding roughshod over the dedicated hard work of journalists that preceded and made possible The Times's current coverage."
The issue of crediting others arose even before the second part of the series was published online on May 10. Melissa Ludtke, executive editor for the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, complained to me that the first article failed to acknowledge the previous investigative reporting of others, particularly that of Hella Winston, a freelancer for The Jewish Week who is a fellow at the Schuster Institute.
I sent Carolyn Ryan, The Times's metro editor, an appeal from Ms. Ludtke to give such credit in part two. But it didn't happen. And after the second article's publication, I heard from others complaining about uncredited foundational reporting — scores of articles in recent years — by additional publications, including The Jewish Daily Forward, the FailedMessiah.com blog, New York magazine and more.
Reading this material, it became clear to me that while there was important new material, many of the essential elements in The Times's series had been reported previously.
To cite one example, The Times's second article, which focused on the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, reported that his office had made inflated claims about the effectiveness of an abuse hot line he had set up. Ms. Winston had reported similar findings in The Jewish Week two weeks earlier.
The lack of credit stings. "You get so much flak — these are difficult stories," Ms. Winston told me, "People come down on you." The Times couldn't have found all its sources among victims and advocates by itself, she added: "You wouldn't have known they existed, you wouldn't have been able to talk to them, if we hadn't written about them for years."
Responding to the complaints in an e-mail message to me, Ms. Ryan said, "We were never under any illusion that we were the first outlet to report on abuse in the community, nor did we claim to be." She acknowledged the work of other outlets as well as a front-page Times article in 2009 as precedents in the coverage.
Ms. Ryan said that other outlets published articles over a period of months when The Times was doing its own extensive, independent reporting: interviewing more than 120 people, scrutinizing court records and creating databases of legal cases. But she said The Times credits others only when it uses "exclusive information that they reported first."
I asked her about the inflated claims for the hot line, first reported in The Jewish Week. She said The Times, by its own means, had reached the same findings before The Jewish Week's article was published.
"In other words, what she reported was not news to us," she said.
Larry Cohler-Esses, assistant managing editor for The Jewish Daily Forward, said The Times wasn't obligated to attribute every previously reported development. But, he said, it should have found somewhere in the lengthy series for a "nicely written paragraph characterizing in one place what the role of these newspapers had been in the foundation of this issue."
I would agree. Especially since, in its first article, The Times paused to trace the rising awareness of child sexual abuse since 2008. Instead of noting the role of the community press, The Times simply told of victims telling their stories on radio call-in shows, on blogs and to victims' advocates.
Mr. Hirsch, the victims' advocate, traced the rise of awareness differently. After New York magazine published a groundbreaking exposé in 2006, he said, Mr. Cohler-Esses and Ms. Winston established trust with survivors and pushed the story forward.
"With every story published by The Jewish Week, The Jewish Star, The Forward, the Failed Messiah blog, the wall of silence was weakened," he wrote.
I polled four veteran journalists who specialize in ethics, and all agreed that The Times should have provided some form of credit for previous reporting.
Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, observed: "It looks like The Jewish Week has been reporting on this for a long time, an entire body of work, done in smaller pieces, targeting a difference audience. It does not have the narrative flair of The Times. That is what The Times does so well: they put a story into a narrative so that you can recognize the significance."
She added, "But there is no reason not to credit."
She struck another theme, echoed by other ethics experts: that providing such credit would have enabled readers to find other sources of information on the subject, especially through online links.
The Times's articles were superb, bringing together disparate elements and telling the story in a compelling way. But fairness dictates what the emerging expectations of the Internet era also dictate: readers should be told more clearly about precedent coverage by others.
The Times has little to lose in doing so, except perhaps the impression that it got the story alone.