The New York Times has a problem. Well actually, The New York Times has a litany of problems—cries of “fake news,” the so-proclaimed death of journalism, etc.—but all of those are external problems. The New York Times has another problem, an internal problem, a let’s-shoot-ourselves-in-the-foot-and-call-it-journalism problem. That problem is nuanced sourcing, and The New York Times has no idea where to find it.
Weeks ago, NYT ran a story headlined “Long After Protests, Students Shun the University of Missouri,” by reporter Anemona Hartocollis.(Hartocollis could not be reached for comment before publication.) The title was factual if a bit sensationalized—enrollment was down and time had passed since the #ConcernedStudent1950 protests concerning racial hostility at the university. A correlation was insinuated but could be dismissed as unintentional until the crux of the article made it clear NYT insisted on getting the story wrong.
“It was a moment of triumph for the protesting students. But it has been a disaster for the university.”
Leadership turnover, state budget cuts, and high school demographics are as much to blame as the effects of the student protests, but NYT either did not know, did not care to find out, or did not want to deviate from the story it knew would make the best headline. Without pointing fingers to the reasoning, the result is, as Ryan Famuliner, a Mizzou assistant professor of journalism, pointed out on Twitter, “frustratingly simple.”
The Mizzou student body president Nathan Willet also chided The New York Times’s reporting in an op-ed to The Kansas City Star. “The reality of Mizzou’s current state of affairs is far more complex than [reporter Anemona] Hartocollis’ story would suggest,” Willet writes. “I will not deny that the events of 2015 have played a sizeable role in the decreased enrollment that our university faces today, but we cannot acknowledge this fact without also acknowledging facts such as decreased population sizes among the age group currently going into college.” Willet goes on to list other reasons for the decline and the steps the university has taken to rectify them.
The problem inherent to both criticisms is the simplicity of the narrative The New York Times chose to promote. Famuliner pointed to another article published by the Columbia Missourian that actually delves deep into why enrollment might be declining rather than seeing protest and assuming causation. Famuliner’s point is clear: Local sourcing, the work done by journalists who follow stories when they are not nationally exposed, often captures the truth more acutely.
Ashley Jost, the higher education reporter for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, acknowledges that the “protests were sexy” and that national outlets have a tendency to “swoop in” and report on stories without context. But still, Jost says, “There’s a way to contextualize what happened and still capture where it looks to be going.”
What The New York Times posted is by no means “fake news,” it is just reductive. The lesson to be learned here is that even the giants are not infallible and that the little guys, and also media covering higher education exclusively, are probably doing better work in the first place.
Jost hopes that the takeaway from NYT’s lack of complexity is not that the national paper focuses more on local sourcing—though that would be a perk—but that audiences learn to go to local sourcing first. By reading and focusing on the people who stay connected rather than “swoop in,” stories are allowed to develop with the proper nuance and accurate information.
According to the Pew Research Center, only 10 percent of Republicans or those who lean Republican look upon the national news media favorably. In fact, 85 percent view that particular institution unfavorably. Bypassing local sourcing only worsens those perceptions by either implicitly promoting a bias or proving that the reporter neglected to do their homework.
For instance, the perception that the protests tarnished the experience of going to Mizzou is largely one of the NYT’s own creation. Willet points this out in his op-ed, saying “In fact, in the time since the events of 2015, Mizzou has experienced the third highest retention rate in its history. In other words, those who were at Mizzou during the protests of 2015 were not driven away by what they experienced. Despite misleading representations by the national media in 2015, the protests of that semester did not shut down campus.”
If NYT wants to point the finger at one thing that has caused the enrollment decline, it should probably point that finger at itself. After all, the publication did blow the protests out of proportion, using Mizzou as a surrogate for events that occur on most college campuses.
By not reporting all sides of a story and having that inaccuracy come to light, the NYT casts doubt on all of its reporting outside of New York. Even if the failures of the Mizzou story are a one-time lapse, can readers trust any NYT article afterward knowing that they may be getting a sensationalized, simplified version of events?
Audiences want information and good information at that. The New York Times should use its name brand and market influence to set a standard of promoting local sourcing. Instead of following the sexy lede or watching the bottom line, the paper should go above and beyond and report what is actually there: all of the facts, not just a few.