Journalism professors call on New York Times to review Oct. 7 report

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More than 50 tenured journalism professors from top universities have signed a letter calling on the New York Times to address questions about a major investigative report that described a “pattern of gender-based violence” in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel.

The letter follows months of criticism and concerns raised by outside critics as well as some Times staffers about the credibility of its sourcing and the editorial process for the story.

The letter, signed by professors at colleges including New York University, University of Pennsylvania, Emory and the University of Texas, asks the Times to “immediately commission a group of journalism experts to conduct a thorough and full independent review of the reporting, editing and publishing processes for this story and release a report of the findings.”

It was sent Monday morning to Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger, executive editor Joe Kahn and international editor Philip Pan.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Times said that the paper has “reviewed the work that was done on this piece of journalism and [we] are satisfied that it met our editorial standards.”

The letter, obtained by The Washington Post, acknowledged the impossibility of “writing perfectly accurate drafts of history in real time” but emphasized that news organizations must be willing to interrogate their own work.

It notes that the Times and many other publications have reassessed stories in the manner the professors suggest. In 2004, the Times reviewed its coverage of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq; in a note to readers, editors later acknowledged they identified “problematic” stories that had been based on the accounts of Iraqi sources “whose credibility has come under increasing public debate.”

Signers include Robert McChesney of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Victor Pickard of the University of Pennsylvania, Maggy Zanger of the University of Arizona and Diane Winston of the University of Southern California.

Questions began to emerge shortly after the Times published its December investigation headlined “‘Screams Without Words’: Sexual Violence on Oct. 7.”

Relatives of a woman slain in the attack, whose story became a central focus of the Times report, cast doubts on reporting suggesting that she was raped, while other critics pointed to discrepancies in various accounts offered by an eyewitness cited in the story.

The Intercept reported that the Times’ flagship podcast, “The Daily,” had shelved a planned episode about the report due to these questions. In response, the Times launched an intensive internal investigation to determine who had leaked newsroom information, a campaign the paper’s Guild called a “racially targeted witch hunt.” The Times firmly denied the Guild’s claim.

The Intercept also reported that the Times relied heavily on two relatively inexperienced freelancers in Israel — Anat Schwartz and Adam Sella — to report the story, while Times correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman was responsible for weaving it together.

The professors’ letters raised concerns about “such reporting arrangements,” noting that Pulitzer-winning reporter Rick Bragg resigned from the Times in 2003 after it was revealed that he had relied heavily on a less-experienced freelancer for reporting.

The letter also makes reference to comments made by Gettleman in an interview after the story was published, in which he said he did not want to use the word “evidence” to describe certain details in the story because it “suggests you’re trying to prove an allegation or prove a case in court.”

“This language is in stark contrast to the story itself which uses the word ‘evidence’ in the sub headline referring to the same information Gettleman was apparently discussing on stage,” the letter said.

In March, the Times reported that new video evidence “undercut” some of the details in its initial investigation. But the paper did not issue a correction or a retraction of the December report, which the journalism professors called an “unusual decision.”

Shahan Mufti, a professor at the University of Richmond, said in an interview that the unusual circumstances called for response from journalism educators.

“We in journalism education are not typically in the business of telling people in the profession how to do their job,” he said. “This required serious consideration and deliberation, and we came to the conclusion that this is necessary.”

Sandy Tolan, a professor at the University of Southern California, said that the timing of the story — as public opinion in the United States was shifting toward a more critical understanding of the devastation of Israel’s bombing of civilian areas in Gaza — is also relevant.

“As the death toll mounted in Gaza, and criticism was beginning to focus more on Israel, the New York Times released this story, which seems to have been published prematurely,” he said. “Being cognizant of the potential damages of and consequences of the timing, given that it didn’t appear to be as well-reported as it should have been, there’s all the more reason why an external review is appropriate.”

An independent review could find the Times did nothing wrong, the letter says, or find errors in the way the newsroom operated. Either way, the letter concludes, an immediate review “is the only responsible and credible thing to do.”

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