Fit To Print?

December 13, 2010

We’ve had a few posts on the Peepshow recently discussing standards and ethics in journalism — and a story in The New York Times last week has me tackling the topic again.

Prior to last Monday night’s game between the New York Jets and New England Patriots, a piece from columnist William Rhoden appeared on the Times site depicting the Patriots as a franchise in decline. The headline touted, “The Day The Patriots Empire Began To Crumble” and the story proclaimed, “The shift has occurred: the Jets are in ascendancy, while New England is in retrograde.”

A few hours later, after the Patriots destroyed the Jets 45-3, the story was conveniently modified online at the same URL — softening the language – and perhaps softening the blow to Rhoden’s reputation.

The new headline read, “Patriots’ Romp Stirs Questions, and Not Just for Jets,” the “ascendancy/retrograde” line was gone and the story included caveats like “If New England does not win another title under Belichick – ”

After the fact, the Times said the first column was written for an earlier deadline and was revised for the later edition. I say nonsense. I’d buy that excuse if they were updating a report with late-breaking news, but why should a columnist get a do-over? Making bold statements is part of the job – a job that becomes pretty easy if a you’re allowed to revise the substance of an article to ensure you’re never on the wrong side of a prediction.

Making matters worse, the revised story included a note to readers that the column had been updated, “An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Bill Bellichick has three Super Bowl rings. He has five  – three with the Patriots and two with the Giants.” However, there was no mention whatsoever of any other modifications. As a topper, the note also spells Belichick wrong. Pretty sloppy.

So what do you think? Is this much ado about nothing or a violation journalistic integrity?