After much criticism, the New York Times apologized for its story about the balcony accident in Berkeley, California that left five Irish students and one American student dead.
iMediaEthics reported earlier today about critics of the Times story, “Deaths of Irish Students in Berkeley Balcony Collapse Casts Pall on Program.” Ireland’s Minister of State Aodhán Ó Ríordáin called for a retraction and apology.
The story reported that the work-visa program the students were on was “not just a source of aspiration, but also a source of embarrassment for Ireland, marked by a series of high-profile episodes involving drunk partying and the wrecking of apartments in places like San Francisco and Santa Barbara.”
Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy apologized in a statement to the Irish Examiner. Her statement said the story “was intended to explain in greater detail why these young Irish students were in the US.”
“We understand and agree that some of the language in the piece could be interpreted as insensitive, particularly in such close proximity to this tragedy,” Murphy said. “It was never our intention to blame the victims and we apologize if the piece left that impression. We will continue to cover this story and report on the young people who lost their lives.”
Times public editor Margaret Sullivan reported in a blogpost this afternoon that she received “hundreds of complaints” over the story and its claim that the program was an “embarrassment to Ireland.”
Sullivan agreed that “the thrust of the story was insensitive, and the reaction to it understandable.”
“Those who wrote and tweeted called this, and other passages in the story, ‘victim-blaming,'” Sullivan wrote. “The real problem, they said, was structural defects in the building. And they objected to depicting the young people as extreme partyers, in part because it perpetuates a stereotype.” She quoted former member of the J-1 program, Brendan O’Sullivan, as saying “The only thing missing” from the story was “a picture of a pint and a kid with red hair falling down drunk.”
Times national editor Alison Mitchell told Sullivan the newspaper did not intend to blame the victims and would have edited out the paragraph about the program being an embarrassment.
One of the Times‘ reporters, Adam Nagourney, admitted he “had the balance wrong” and wasn’t sensitive enough with the story, explaining he wanted to report on both the “positive aspects to the program” and the negatives. “I put too much emphasis on the negative aspects, and they were too high in my story. That did not become clear to me until I got a distraught email from a reader right after the story posted,” Nagourney told Sullivan.
Sullivan noted that the New York Times doesn’t unpublish stories.