Public Editor talks about Killer Vets

The NY Times public editor responds to the criticism of the ‘Killer Vets’ series:

The Times was pointing out terrible examples of something the military itself acknowledges: large numbers of veterans are returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with psychological problems. And, as the initial article said, a Pentagon task force found last year that the military mental health system was poorly prepared to deal with this wave of distress.

The Times was immediately accused – in The New York Post and the conservative blogosphere, and by hundreds of messages to the public editor – of portraying all veterans as unstable killers. It did not.

But, the first article used colorfully inflated language – “trail of death” – for a trend it could not reliably quantify, despite an attempt at statistical analysis using squishy numbers. The article did not make clear what its focus was. Was it about killer vets, or about human tragedies involving a system that sometimes fails to spot and treat troubled souls returning from combat?

Finally, while many of the 121 cases found by The Times appeared clearly linked to wartime stresses, others seemed questionable.

There’s some discussion of how the process may have failed…

Purdy urged me not to get lost in the numbers as I looked at the first two articles. I agree with that, but I believe The Times tangled itself in numbers right at the start. Bill Keller, the executive editor, said the newsroom’s computer-assisted reporting unit normally screens articles with statistical analyses. Some of the problems might have been avoided if someone in the unit had read the first article before it was published. But Terry Schwadron, the editor who oversees the unit, which created a database for the 121 cases, said that did not happen. “I read the story in the paper, and I shared some concerns” with Purdy, he said.

And, finally, we understand why the reporters care so much about the story:

Purdy defended the series. “It is an intimate exploration of a devastating cost of the war that merits national attention and focus but has not received it,” he said, because “it is playing out in one community at a time … with no comprehensive attention from the military.”

Keller agreed. “I believe this series is an important public service that explores in riveting detail the emotional stresses war places on this important community and the problems the military faces in coping with those stresses,” he said.

11 thoughts on “Public Editor talks about Killer Vets”

  1. “…Finally, while many of the 121 cases found by The Times appeared clearly linked to wartime stresses, others seemed questionable…”

    The NYT Public Editor is on to something here, though being conscious of the need to keep his job, he pulls his punches. I would argue that “many” is not “most” and thus undermines the implied, if not stated, thesis of the article in question.

  2. Ugh, Purdy is so full of it! The story was pure sensationalism and slander against the veterans–especially when it comes to light that the veterans’ homicide rate is lower than the same general population’s. The focus of the article wasn’t to try and improve the mental healthcare for our vets, it was merely to re-affirm the deranged elite’s belief that veterans are broken psychopaths.

  3. This syndrome is so familiar it needs a name; the first reaction (in the very first sentence) is always “conservatives are picking on us AGAIN.” They probably expect their readers to read no further than that.

    How about “Foeritis”?

  4. “But, the first article used colorfully inflated language – “trail of death” – for a trend it could not reliably quantify, despite an attempt at statistical analysis using squishy numbers. The article did not make clear what its focus was. Was it about killer vets, or about human tragedies involving a system that sometimes fails to spot and treat troubled souls returning from combat?”

    I love that phrase: “colorfully inflated language.”

    If this were a writing assignment for a Journo course, and the instructor’s comments included this paragraph, what should the grade have been?

    Seems to me a leading newspaper that has pretenses as the “paper of record” should be ashamed and humiliated that such could be said of a major reporting series.

  5. I have a big problem with the NYT ombudsman process. Essentially it seems like a white wash.

    Process works like this- some egregious article establishes enough attention that enough angry letters and linked blog rants demand some sort of NYT response. The ombudsman examines it, and generally comes back agreeing with the basis of the charge. He then throws in about 50 caveats and nonsequitars, quotes the author who stands completely by their article, and basically minimizes completely what he just agreed was wrong.

    And then of course nothing happens. If anything this process has removed the practice of the retraction. Now the author is insulated from criticism. The public editor gives a polite nod to the critics, wrings his hands ever so gently, and the Times goes on business as usual.

    Thats their right, they are a private company. But one might hope some of their professional cohorts would put a little pressure on them to correct self-acknowledged mistakes. If anything this process seems to enable them.

  6. The last excerpt gives the lie to the rest of the defense (or whitewash, as another poster above labeled it), IMHO.

    Purdy defended the series. “It is an intimate exploration of a devastating cost of the war that merits national attention and focus but has not received it,” he said, because “it is playing out in one community at a time … with no comprehensive attention from the military.”

    Keller agreed. “I believe this series is an important public service that explores in riveting detail the emotional stresses war places on this important community and the problems the military faces in coping with those stresses,” he said.

    Considering the thorough debunking that the article’s numbers have gotten since its publication, one wonders why a clear-eyed journalist with that stated motive would look exclusively to murder statistics for their evidence of “the emotional stresses war places on this important community.” Considering how much lower the murder rate among veterans is than the murder rate among equivalent demographics sans veteran status, the lesson from the NYT’s statistics would be that combat really isn’t all that emotional stressful at all.

    If the NYT were honestly trying to highlight emotional stress on the military, there have to be a hundred more credible statistics out there. It is emotionally stressful being a servicemember at times. I’m sure that has plenty of tangible effects that a more industrious reporter could measure, though it might take more than a LexisNexis search of crime reports.

    The NYT wasn’t looking for the “emotional stress” angle. They were looking for the “sociopathic killer vet” angle.

  7. I dare say the NYT would be far less interested in exploring the emotional stresses caused by war if it was a Democratic President ordering a Democratic war. Not to be overly partisan, but if a Hilary or Obama orders troops into Darfur or Kenya, for example, the media probably wouldn’t be so interested in trumpeting the emotional and social “costs of war” on the frontpage everyday.

    When it’s a cause they back, even if it’s the same type of fighting, the same costs, the same devastation, and the same young people bearing it, you wouldn’t see this kind of coverage over and over again, day after day, all under the guise of pious “concern”.

  8. From Iowahawk:

    Bylines of Brutality
    As Casualties Mount, Some Question The Emotional Stability of Media Vets

    An Iowahawk Special Investigative Report
    With Statistical Guidance from the New York Times

    A Denver newspaper columnist is arrested for stalking a story subject. In Cincinnati, a television reporter is arrested on charges of child molestation. A North Carolina newspaper reporter is arrested for harassing a local woman. A drunken Chicago Sun-Times columnist and editorial board member is arrested for wife beating. A Baltimore newspaper editor is arrested for threatening neighbors with a shotgun. In Florida, one TV reporter is arrested for DUI, while another is charged with carrying a gun into a high school. A Philadelphia news anchorwoman goes on a violent drunken rampage, assaulting a police officer. In England, a newspaper columnist is arrested for killing her elderly aunt.

    Unrelated incidents, or mounting evidence of that America’s newsrooms have become a breeding ground for murderous, drunk, gun-wielding child molesters? Answers are elusive, but the ever-increasing toll of violent crimes committed by journalists has led some experts to warn that without programs for intensive mental health care, the nation faces a potential bloodbath at the hands of psychopathic media vets.

    “These people could snap at any minute,” says James Treacher of the Treacher Institute for Journalist Studies. “We need to get them the help and medication they need before it’s too late.”

    “Read the rest at Iowahawk’s”:http://tinyurl.com/2c4x5s

    [Note: We don’t generally tolerate long / complete text reposts from other sites. I rigged up a tinyurl link for you this time. –Marshal Nortius “Big Tuna” Maximus]

  9. Actually the Iowahawk piece was the better researched of the two. Didn’t folk say that Blazing Saddles killed the Western? It made everyone realize the genre was just too pathetically easy to parody.

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