Last night The NY Times public editor weighed in on the decision to print the evidence photos. I think she got it wrong too. Reporters are citizens of the world first and foremost, and journalists second.
Here is her column:
Around midday on Wednesday, The New York Times published several photographs showing, in eerie detail, the makeshift shrapnel, shredded blue backpack and powerful lead acid battery used by the Manchester bomber who killed 22 people. The story accompanying the photos, describing the forensic evidence and crime scene found by investigators, said the bomber’s torso had been heaved toward the entrance of the Manchester Arena.
Nothing in the story directly states the source of the material but it says the evidence was photographed and distributed by British authorities. Now, British officials are accusing U.S. intelligence of leaking the material, saying it could seriously impede an investigation into the deadliest terrorist attack in Britain in more than a decade. Following complaints by Prime Minister Theresa May, President Trump has called for a Justice Department investigation into the “alleged leaks.”
Why did The Times publish the evidence and how did it weigh the public interest in the information against any potential damage to the investigation?
Dean Baquet, the executive editor, said he understands why some readers are concerned but he stands by the decision.
The judgment is that there is a public benefit to telling people how terrorists work, including the makeup of their bombs, the kinds of packs they carry. The [C.J.] Chivers story did that in a remarkably astute way, including interviews with experts. This was not highly classified information. And it did not violate anyone’s privacy. Nor was it insensitive. I understand the upset. Nothing is more powerfully upsetting than what happened in Manchester. But explaining how terrorists work is important journalism.It is rarely an easy decision when editors are weighing the public’s right to know against government concerns that publishing certain information might jeopardize investigations. In this case, the decision to publish has generated hundreds of emails from readers expressing a mix of fury and disappointment at The Times’s decision.
“In many instances there is a strong public interest case for publishing information leaked by government officials, and in a number of those, a justification for doing so rapidly,” wrote Charles Worringham of Queensland, Australia. “I cannot immediately see any such justification for the NYT’s rapid publication of photos of the Manchester bombing (forensic close-ups of the detonator, backpack) that have apparently been leaked by U.S. officials, while police investigations are still at an early stage and their publication could potentially hinder or disrupt those investigations. While the blame could be laid at the feet of the leakers, I would ask the NYT to respond to the position that running the story so quickly potentially damages the broader public interest (i.e. avoiding the possibility of compromising investigations), rather than serving it.”
Here’s another from Bradley Tice of Orange, Conn.: “The photos are virtually meaningless to people, but appeal to prurient interests. The New York Times has shared evidence that is meaningful to people who have aided and abetted these terrorists and may help them evade capture.”
Typically in cases like this, there is an internal discussion among top editors in the newsroom where questions are raised of just the type that readers are now voicing. Most likely that happened in this case as well, although editors have declined to discuss such conversations.
In most cases where journalists obtain sensitive material — and in this one, as well — I start from the position that a publication’s job is to inform the public, and if government officials believe information could jeopardize crime or intelligence operations, the onus is on them to make their case.
In this instance, it’s not clear whether government officials — either U.S. or British — had such a discussion with The Times or whether this was complicated by the possibility that U.S. officials leaked British investigative evidence. The British government claims that’s the case. But the story refers only vaguely to its source. Perhaps such discussions with British investigators did take place, and The Times found the argument unconvincing.
So should The Times have published? It’s hard to say conclusively without knowing whether British officials made a specific case for how this would endanger their investigation. I’ve seen only general assertions of that claim without any specifics. (It’s worth noting that The Guardian, USA Today, NBC News and others all have now published the forensic evidence.)
In the absence of such information, I support The Times’s decision.
The photographs and story are unquestionably compelling and provide insight into an event of crucial public interest. That doesn’t mean the public has some vital need to see these photos; but by that standard neither do they need to see plenty of other stories and photographs.
Times editors might have at least softened the reader uproar by offering a brief explanation within the story of how they evaluate such sensitive decisions, particularly in a case of such international significance. The outcry wasn’t hard to predict. Plenty of readers might still object, but they would at least see that judgments like these aren’t made lightly.