The Public Editor of the New York Times - Carrying the Facts Too Far

Complaints about overstatement by reporters and headline writers come to me frequently from people who are extremely close readers of the paper. Many of these, like Times readers in general, are highly educated and bring very high expectations. Their complaints often seem to carry the thought: New York Times, you are the last bastion of reliable daily journalism; do not fail me now. Jason Hodin, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford, faulted a fascinating Page 1 story for the sin of stretching. The article, by Kirk Johnson, appeared in print on Oct. 7 under the headline “With Scientists, Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery.” It dealt with a new study of the mystifying phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder, in which 20 to 40 percent of U.S. bee colonies are believed to have died off. Mr. Hodin contended that the study identified new factors that appear to be “linked” to and “implicated” in the die-off, while the Times story and headline stretched the facts to conclude more. The article described two new suspect factors — a virus and a fungus, acting in combination: “together, the research suggests, they are 100 percent fatal.” Mr. Johnson, who was not responsible for the headline, said: “That Colony Collapse had been finally and permanently solved seemed neither evident to me, nor — in rereading the story as it appeared in the paper — the message of what we published. It certainly was not the intent.”

Source: The New York Times, October 23, 2010