The Public Editor's Journal - Margaret Sullivan
Aftermath of Ukraine Photo Story Shows Need for More Caution
By MARGARET SULLIVAN APRIL 24, 2014, 5:58 PM
The Times led its print edition Monday with an article based in part on photographs that the State Department said were evidence of Russian military presence in popular uprisings in Ukraine. The headline read: “Photos Link Masked Men in East Ukraine to Russia.”
For two weeks, the mysteriously well-armed, professional gunmen known as “green men” have seized Ukrainian government sites in town after town, igniting a brush fire of separatist unrest across eastern Ukraine. Strenuous denials from the Kremlin have closely followed each accusation by Ukrainian officials that the world was witnessing a stealthy invasion by Russian forces.
Now, photographs and descriptions from eastern Ukraine endorsed by the Obama administration on Sunday suggest that many of the green men are indeed Russian military and intelligence forces — equipped in the same fashion as Russian special operations troops involved in annexing the Crimea region in February. Some of the men photographed in Ukraine have been identified in other photos clearly taken among Russian troops in other settings.
More recently, some of those grainy photographs have been discredited. The Times has published a second article backing off from the original and airing questions about what the photographs are said to depict, but hardly addressing how the newspaper may have been misled.
It all feels rather familiar – the rushed publication of something exciting, often based on an executive branch leak. And then, afterward, with a kind of “morning after” feeling, here comes a more sober, less prominently displayed followup story, to deal with objections while not clarifying much of anything.
A lot of the American media coverage of Ukraine reminds me of Kennedy Era coverage of Vietnam, when reporters went over to this strange country and got briefed by the State Department and CIA and came back and filed gung ho stories.
The problems with the first article did not go unnoticed by readers and commenters. Ken Miller, a professor at Columbia University Medical School, called the photo story “egregious, being based entirely on alleged identifications of individuals in pairs of photographs where the faces were so fuzzy there was no way to see anything more than a vague and perhaps entirely coincidental resemblance (not to mention that the authenticity of the photographs themselves wasn’t established in any way).”
And the reporter Robert Parry (formerly of Newsweek and The Associated Press) on Consortiumnews.com sees a pattern in Times articles, often based on administration leaks, that “draw hard conclusions from very murky evidence while ignoring or brushing aside alternative explanations.”
Thursday morning, I asked the foreign editor, Joseph Kahn, to talk about what had happened. ...
He rejects the idea that The Times’s coverage has lacked skepticism and sees this instance as a result of a simple mistake: the State Department’s mislabeling. ...
Here’s my take: The Times’s coverage of this crisis has had much to commend it, especially the quality of the on-the-ground reporting. But this article, with its reliance on an administration leak, was displayed too prominently and questioned too lightly. The Times’s influence demands that it be cautious, especially when deciding to publish what amounts to a government handout.