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 newsroomâ€™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.