A Call From the Journalism Academy for an External Review at The New York Times


April 29, 2024

Mr. A.G. Sulzberger, Chairperson
The New York Times

Mr. Sulzberger,

We are professors of journalism and scholars of news media at colleges and universities across the United States. We write this after reading and hearing compelling reports over many months, in several news outlets and on social media, questioning the integrity of The New York Times’ front-page story from December 31, 2023 titled, “‘Screams Without Words’: Sexual Violence on Oct. 7.” The Times’ editorial leadership appears to have largely dismissed these reports and remains silent on important and troubling questions raised about its reporting and editorial processes. We believe this inaction is not only harming The Times itself, it also actively endangers journalists, including American reporters working in conflict zones as well as Palestinian journalists (of which, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports, around 100 have been killed in this conflict so far).

In light of the elimination of its public editor role in 2017, we recommend that The New York Times immediately commission a group of journalism experts to conduct a thorough and full independent review of the reporting, editing and publishing processes for this story and release a report of the findings.

Many of us worked as full-time journalists before our careers in academia, often in daily news, while others have studied newsrooms and news organizations as researchers and scholars. We understand how stories are assigned, edited, produced and published. It’s not always a flawless process and we appreciate that making mistakes is part of the job. Writing perfectly accurate drafts of history in real time is an impossible task, and that is why running corrections is routine business. The Times does it almost every day.

Occasionally, the impact of possible mistakes, on the profession and the world, appears so tremendous or profound that leaders in the newsroom must consider an extraordinary response. The Times has done this on various occasions in the past, most notably in 2004 following its coverage of the lead-up to the war in Iraq, which, as The Times wrote at the time, included an over-reliance on “people whose credibility has come under increasing public debate.” Based on the reports that have been circulating about the recent story, we believe that this is another such occasion for The Times.

There is precedent for the kind of external review we are recommending. A little over twenty years ago, The Times itself followed up an internal investigation of its staff reporter Jayson Blair, who was caught fabricating stories, by contracting the journalist Daniel Okrent for an eighteen-month period to study the newsroom and recommend changes and serve as the paper’s first public editor. More recently, when Rolling Stone magazine discovered that a freelance reporter had been misled by her source while reporting a high-profile piece that appeared in print in the November 2014 issue, the magazine commissioned an independent investigation of its processes by the Columbia Journalism School. “The only responsible and credible thing to do,” the editors later wrote about the decision, “was to ask someone from outside the magazine to investigate.” A report, which was published by both Columbia Journalism Review and Rolling Stone, found faults up and down the chain.

The impact of The New York Times story is impossible to fathom. This is wartime and in the minds of many people, The Times’ story fueled the fire at a pivotal moment when there might have been an opportunity to contain it before, as the International Court of Justice has ruled, the situation devolved into the “plausible” realm of genocide. Considering these grave circumstances, we believe that The Times must waste no time in extending an invitation for an independent review.

Some of the most troubling questions hovering over the story relate to the freelancers who reported a great deal of it, especially Anat Schwartz who appears to have had no prior daily news reporting experience before her bylines in The TimesThe Intercept reported that she is an Israeli “filmmaker and former air force intelligence official.” Adam Sella, another inexperienced freelancer who shared the byline on this story, is reported to be the nephew of Schwartz’s partner. Jeffrey Gettleman was the only staff reporter with a byline on the story. The Intercept reported that “Schwartz and Sella did the vast majority of the ground reporting, while Gettleman focused on the framing and writing.”

It is important that The New York Times clarify the processes through which these freelancers, especially Schwartz, were vetted and how their work landed on page one. It appears that extraordinary trust was invested in these individuals and The Times would benefit from publicly explaining the circumstances that justified such unusual reliance on freelancers for such an important story. In the past, The Times has rightly been critical of such reporting arrangements. In 2003, Rick Bragg, a staff reporter for The Times resigned from the paper after news of his heavy and misguided reliance on an inexperienced freelancer for reporting. A statement from The Times that followed the resignation said that “non-staffers should be used to supplement a correspondent’s core reporting; they should not be used to substitute for that reporting.”

We are also alarmed at how during an on-stage conversation with Sheryl Sandberg, the former COO of Meta, Gettleman said he did not “want to even use the word evidence” to describe certain details in the story, “because evidence is almost like the legal term that suggests you’re trying to prove an allegation or prove a case in court.” This language is in stark contrast to the story itself which uses the word “evidence” in the sub headline referring to the same information Gettleman was apparently discussing on stage. Further down, the story plainly states that the “two-month investigation by The Times uncovered painful new details, establishing that the attacks against women were not isolated events but part of a broader pattern of gender-based violence.” Can the paper “establish” fact if its own reporter does not consider his information “evidence?”

The Times is now presenting evidence of the flaws in its own reporting. A story that appeared in the March 26, 2024 edition of The Times, reported that new video evidence “undercut” some important details included in the December 31 story by Gettleman, Schwartz and Sella. In what appears to be an unusual decision, The Times added an “update” to the online version of “Screams Without Words” noting the contradiction but has not made a correction to the story or issued a retraction.

These are only a handful of many questions swirling around this story. Again, we urge The New York Times to quickly, with breaking-news-swiftness, commission an independent review of this story and the entire process that led up to its publication. It is the only responsible and credible thing to do. If an independent review finds that The Times did nothing gravely wrong, then it will be a win not just for The Times but for all journalism. In the worst case, if an investigation does find remarkable errors or negligence in the way the newsroom operated, nothing that The Times would do in response could ever reverse the damage done to Palestine and to Palestinians but The Times could still reverse some of the damage it has done to itself with its silence. Doing nothing, however, and allowing a cloud of doubt to hang over this historically consequential story will ensure that all the journalism that The New York Times produces in the course of this conflict will remain under a dark shadow.

Sincerely,

Deb Aikat
Associate Professor
Hussman School of Journalism and Media
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Evelyn Alsultany
Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity
Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
University of Southern California

Mike Ananny
Associate Professor of Communication and Journalism
Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
University of Southern California

Mohamad Bazzi
Associate Professor
Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute
New York University

Jack Bratich
Professor of Journalism and Media Studies
School of Communication and Information
Rutgers University

Danielle K. Brown
Associate Professor
School of Journalism
Michigan State University

Andrew Butters
Associate Professor of Practice
School of Journalism and Media
University of Texas at Austin

Laura Castañeda
Professor of Professional Practice of Journalism
Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
University of Southern California

Paula Chakravartty
James Weldon Johnson Associate Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication
Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development
New York University

AJ Christian
Associate Professor
School of Communication
Northwestern University

Angie Chuang
Associate Professor of Journalism
College of Media, Communication and Information
University of Colorado Boulder

Jeff Cohen
Associate Professor of Journalism (retired)
Roy H. Park School of Communications
Ithaca College

Sachi Cunningham
Associate Professor
Department of Journalism
San Francisco State University

Brian Dolber
Associate Professor of Communication
Department of Communication & Media Studies
California State University San Marcos

Christina Dunbar-Hester
Professor of Communication
Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
University of Southern California

Nabil Echchaibi
Associate Professor of Media Studies
College of Media, Communication and Information
University of Colorado at Boulder

Miya Williams Fayne
Assistant Professor
School of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Julia Furlan
Lecturer
Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts
The New School

Oscar Garza
Professor of Professional Practice of Journalism
Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
University of Southern California

Kelly Gates
Associate Professor
Department of Communication San Diego
University of California San Diego

Larry Gross
Professor Emeritus of Communication
Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
University of Southern California

Afua Hirsch
Professor of Journalism
Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
University of Southern California

Brent Huffman
Professor
Medill School of Journalism
Northwestern University

Nausheen Husain
Assistant Professor of Journalism
S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications
Syracuse University

Sarah J. Jackson
Presidential Associate Professor
Annenberg School for Communication
University of Pennsylvania

Sut Jhally
Professor Emeritus
Department of Communication
University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Chenjerai Kumanyika
Assistant Professor
Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute
New York University

Deepa Kumar
Professor of Journalism and Media Studies
School of Communication and Information
Rutgers University

Rachel Kuo
Assistant Professor
College of Media
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Jeremy Littau
Associate Professor
Department of Journalism and Communication
Lehigh University

Regina Marchi
Professor of Journalism and Media Studies
School of Communication and Information
Rutgers University

Alice Marwick
Associate Professor
Department of Communication
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Robert McChesney
Professor Emeritus
Department of Communication
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Shannon McGregor
Associate Professor
Hussman School of Journalism & Media
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Erin Siegal McIntyre
Assistant Professor
Hussman School of Journalism and Media
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Suketu Mehta
Associate Professor
Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute
New York University

Antonieta Mercado
Associate Professor
Department of Communication
University of San Diego

Alan Mittelstaedt
Associate Professor of Professional Practice of Journalism
Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
University of Southern California

Shahan Mufti
Professor
Department of Journalism
University of Richmond

Arionne Nettles
Lecturer and Director of Audio Journalism Programming
Medill School of Journalism
Northwestern University

Jonathan Corpus Ong
Associate Professor
Department of Communication
University of Massachusetts Amherst

Michael Park
Assistant Professor in Media Law
College of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Janice Peck
Professor Emerita
College of Media, Communication and Information
University of Colorado at Boulder

Victor Pickard
C. Edwin Baker Professor of Media Policy and Political Economy
Annenberg School for Communication
University of Pennsylvania

Raza Ahmad Rumi
Director
Park Center for Independent Media
Ithaca College

Bryan Sacks
Lecturer
School of Communication and Information
Rutgers University

Beena Sarwar
Affiliated Faculty
Department of Journalism
Emerson College

Robert Scheer
Clinical Professor of Communication
Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism
University of Southern California

Dan Schiller
Professor Emeritus
Department of Communication
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Nathan Schneider
Assistant Professor, Media Studies
College of Media, Communication and Information
University of Colorado Boulder

Clay Steinman
Professor Emeritus
Media and Cultural Studies
Macalester College

Helga Tawil-Souri
Associate Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication
Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development
New York University

Steven W. Thrasher
Assistant Professor and Daniel H. Renberg Chair
Medill School of Journalism
Northwestern University

Sandy Tolan
Professor of Journalism
Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
University of Southern California

Alison Trope
Clinical Professor of Communication
Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
University of Southern California

Miki Turner
Professor of Professional Practice of Journalism
Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
University of Southern California

Lam Thuy Vo
Associate Professor of Data Journalism
Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism
City University of New York

Khadijah Costley White
Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies
School of Communication and Information
Rutgers University

Diane Winston
Professor of Journalism and Communication; Knight Center Chair in Media and Religion
Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
University of Southern California

Todd Wolfson
Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies
School of Communication and Information
Rutgers University

Bilge Yesil
Associate Professor of Media Culture
College of Staten Island
The City University of New York

Will Youmans
Associate Professor of Media and Public Affairs
School of Media and Public Affairs
George Washington University

Maggy Zanger
Professor Emerita
School of Journalism
University of Arizona

cc: Joseph Kahn, Executive Editor, The New York Times
Philip Pan, International Editor, The New York Times

______________________________

If you are a professor of journalism/communications or scholar of news media at a college or university in the United States, you can add your name to this letter, here.

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