Sunday, February 24, 2013

Is "proved true" or "can't be proved false" the right standard for journalism?

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last couple of weeks, you've probably heard about the battle between Elon Musk of Tesla and The New York Times. Here's a summary:
  1. New York Times reporter John Broder took an electric-powered Tesla S sedan on a test drive for the purpose of seeing whether he could drive it from New York to Boston without running out of power. Broder claimed that his Model S ran out of power on the last leg of the trip and had to be towed.
  2. Several days later, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted that detailed logs of Broder's test from the Model S showed significant inconsistencies between what Broder wrote and what actually happened.
  3. The New York Times replied in part by saying "We, of course, stand by our story."
  4. A couple of days later, Elon Musk published the results of the logs on Tesla's blog, pointing out that in two of the three cases where Broder recharged the car, he only did so to a portion of the battery's capacity, and on the leg of the trip where Broder wrote that the battery died and the car had to be towed, Broder had charged the battery to less than 30% of capacity. He also pointed out discrepancies between how Broder set the heat in the car and what the car reported, and also, that Broder drove significantly faster than he reported. Musk wrote that he believed that Broder had deliberately botched the test.
  5. On the Times' car blog, Broder gave point-by-point rebuttals for most of Musk's arguments, but couldn't explain why Tesla's logs showed the Model S going much faster than Broder claimed he ever drove. (Tesla's logs showed the Model S getting up to 80 miles per hour at one point, while Broder claimed that he never exceeded the speed limit.)
  6. CNN and a group of Tesla owners (among others) reproduced Broder's test (albeit in slightly warmer weather) and said that they comfortably made it from New York to Boston without running out of power and without problems in finding charging stations.
  7. New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan interviewed Broder, reviewed his written logs, reviewed Tesla's logs from the car, and talked to owners. She concluded that there was no evidence that Broder or the Times had deliberately botched the test. However, she also found that Broder had done a sloppy job of documenting what he did in the test and couldn't substantiate a number of things that he wrote in his article, that Broder should have fully charged the car when he had an opportunity to do so, and that both Broder and Musk had made misstatements.
  8. Elon Musk responded to Sullivan's article with a blog post that thanked the Times for reviewing Broder's article and reporting Sullivan's conclusions. In his post, Musk emphasized Broder's mistakes but didn't mention that Sullivan found that he had made misstatements as well.
  9. New York Times Cars Editor James Cobb (Broder's boss) then took to Twitter to attack Musk for "smearing" Broder, who he (Cobb) called a "consummate pro."
When I read Cobb's tweets, it was apparent to me that the John Broder he was lauding wasn't the John Broder that Margaret Sullivan interviewed and wrote about. I responded to Cobb's tweet with my own:
.@NYTjamescobb @elonmusk As your own public editor pointed out, @jbrodernyt was far from a "consummate pro," and you failed to fact-check.
Cobb responded back to me a bit later:
@lenfeldman Unaware of a single error of provable fact. 
Cobb's response shocked me--there were many discrepancies between Broder's article and blog post and Tesla's logs. I didn't respond back, but many others did. My biggest shock, however, was how Cobb defined his standard for reporting: "Unaware of a single error of provable fact."

Since the end of the "yellow journalism" days, the standard for whether or not to go to press with a story has been "proved true." That means that the reporter has corroborated his or her story with interviews from multiple parties, has gathered facts from third parties that also corroborate the story, and has fully documented his or her own efforts to find the truth. However, Mr. Cobb is applying a much different standard: "Can't be proved false." Leaving the entire "you can't prove a negative" argument aside, what "can't be proved false" means is that there's some possibility, no matter how slight, that the reporter's account might be true.

Under Mr. Cobb's standard, Mr. Broder's practice of keeping sloppy notes and writing things that he couldn't verify is perfectly acceptable: If Mr. Broder says that what he wrote actually happened, and there's no one else in the car and no other means to provide independent verification, that meets the "can't be proved false" standard. The problem, of course, is that unbeknownst to Mr. Broder, everything that he did with the car was recorded, in minute detail, by Tesla.

Let me be clear--there are times when the "can't be proved false" standard is perfectly acceptable. Reviews of movies, plays, concerts, etc. fall into that category, because they're records of the personal opinions of the reviewers. A reviewer may write "This was so-and-so's worst film to date." Even though it's written as a statement of fact, it's clear that it's the reviewer's opinion. Car reviews can also fall under that standard, since so much of what's written in a car review is the reviewer's subjective opinion. However, what Broder did with the Tesla S wasn't a car review--it was a news story, to determine if it was possible (and practical) to drive an all-electric-car 300 miles from New York to Boston. The appropriate standard was "proved true," and Mr. Broder didn't do that.

I hope that the "can't be proved false" standard is unique to Mr. Cobb, not a reflection of general editorial standards at the New York Times. However, I'm going to be reading everything in the Times with a much more jaundiced eye from now on...at least until the newspaper officially repudiates Mr. Cobb's position.

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