The public editor of The New York Times has called for “systemic change” at the newspaper after an article incorrectly stated that one of the shooters who carried out the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, posted openly on social media about her support for jihad.
Margaret Sullivan acts as the newspaper’s independent critic and public liaison.
She addressed the San Bernardino story after FBI Director James Comey said earlier this week that Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik expressed their support for jihad in private communications, but not publicly social media, as The Times had reported in a front-page story last Sunday.
The Times story “involved a failure of sufficient scepticism at every level of the reporting and editing process,” Sullivan wrote. She criticised the newspaper’s reliance on anonymous government sources, and editors at The Times blamed this particular misinformation on sources who “apparently did not know the difference between public and private messages on social-media platforms.”
Executive editor Dean Baquet said the reporters’ sources “misunderstood how social media works and we didn’t push hard enough.” He called the story a “really big mistake.”
“This was a system failure that we have to fix,” he said, while noting that it wouldn’t be realistic to ban anonymous sources entirely at The Times.
The Times story, which said that Malik “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad” and “made little effort to hide” her extremist sympathies before she moved to the US, set off a chain reaction when it was first published.
News outlets published articles questioning how US immigration officials could miss such an obvious red flag as they were processing Malik’s visa application to enter the country. Presidential candidate and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) bashed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for being too politically correct to properly screen immigrants.
And Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York), the No. 3 Senate Democrat, said that if the DHS had properly vetted Malik, “maybe those people in San Bernardino would be alive.”
The Times attached an editors’ note to the story on Thursday after it became apparent that their sources had made a mistake.
“The Times need[s] to fix its overuse of unnamed government sources,” Sullivan wrote. “And it needs to slow down the reporting and editing process, especially in the fever-pitch atmosphere surrounding a major news event. Those are procedural changes, and they are needed. But most of all, and more fundamental, the paper needs to show far more scepticism — a kind of prosecutorial scrutiny — at every level of the process.”
Sullivan concluded her editorial by stating: “If this isn’t a red alert, I don’t know what will be.”
Malik and Farook killed 14 people at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino on December 2.
Though it doesn’t appear that Malik posted publicly on social media about jihad before the San Bernardino attack, an FBI affidavit that was released on Thursday notes that a Facebook page associated with Malik posted an oath of allegiance to the leader of the terrorist group ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, and Daesh) while the attack was ongoing.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.