Berkeley tragedy coverage shows collapse in ethics - even in the New York Times

Published 23/06/2015 | 00:00

The fourth floor apartment in Berkeley, California where the tragedy unfolded.
The fourth floor apartment in Berkeley, California where the tragedy unfolded.

SOMETIMES the more you dig the bigger the hole you make for yourself.

Take the world's most renowned newspaper, the New York Times, for instance. Over recent days it has managed to issue several pronouncements on its insensitive coverage of the deaths of six Irish youths in Berkeley. With each cringe worthy statement it has merely added to the anger felt by Irish people everywhere.

First came paper spokesperson Eileen Murphy's statement which went as far a saying that the article was insensitive as the allegations it was levying against the J-I programme were made in such 'close proximity' to the tragedy.

'It was never our intention to blame the victims and we apologize if the piece left that impression,' she wrote.

Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor's Journal, said in her blog that the newspaper was inundated with complaints from readers who decried the 'victim-blaming' tone of the article - written by three New York Times reporters - which outlined how embarrassed Ireland was about its J-1 programme on Tuesday, a day after six Irish people lost their young lives. They also objected to depicting the young people as extreme partyers, in part because it perpetuates a stereotype. Implied in the article was that 'drunken partying' by young Irish people - like the men and women who had just lost their lives - is a major source of embarrassment here, as if American teenagers, who are notorious for their wild partying in college, don't do likewise. The article alludes to high profile incidents involving drunken Irish youths leaving rental homes in San Francisco and Santa Barbara in tatters.

In an article in December the same newspaper decried at length the fact that the binge-drinking rate among college students has hovered above 40 percent for two decades, and signs are that partying is getting even harder. For many the goal is to black out.

Equating Irish teens drinking with the balcony collapse in Berkeley was crass, mean and judgmental. Not to mention inaccurate. The fact is that the old trope, depicted in the fighting, drunken Irish leprechaun raising aloft a stein of beer images on t-shirts and in pub signs, damns us before we even pass security into America.

Young Irish people are known as hard workers. Some drink too much, others don't. The J-I is a rite of passage, a work-visa programme in a country once known for its free thinking and welcoming culture. It is a culture which needs to look in the mirror, before it projects negatively about other countries.

Ms Sullivan said the national editor, Alison Mitchell, whose staff wrote and edited the story, said she regrets that readers believe The Times set out to blame the victims. If she had the chance to edit it now, she said, she would have removed some key passages from the story, including the one mentioned above.

Then one of the reporters came out to cry some crocodile tears online, saying he got the balance wrong.

Adam Nagourney said: 'I put too much emphasis on the negative aspects, and they were too high in my story. That did not become clear to me until I got a distraught email from a reader right after the story posted. I made a minor change in the story to try to address that, but it did not go far enough.'

By now a hole the size of the Grand Canyon had been dug and still the newspaper is refusing to remove the offending article, as it goes against New York Times policy. No doubt the PR nightmare will continue and for me, a former big fan of the publication, its reputation has been tarnished.

Mary McAleese came out very strong against the paper, as did several other Irish statesmen and women.

The newspaper's editorial team has finally recognised that an examination of the building's structure, rather than the behaviour of young people in the J-1 programme, would have been a more appropriate focus for a second-day story.

The fact that the newspaper is (usually) a bastion of good journalism made the piece seem all the more ill judged.

Wexford People

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