The New York Times‘ Kabul bureau chief Rod Nordland shouldn’t have published comments made by a fellow journalist in an authors-only event in Brisbane, Australia, public editor Liz Spayd concluded.
As Spayd explained, author Suki Kim complained after the Times reported her criticism of author Lionel Shriver in a Sept. 12 article, “Lionel Shriver’s address on cultural appropriation roils a writers festival.” Kim said she didn’t realize her comments to Nordland were going to be reported and instead thought she was just chatting at a small reception at a book festival with a fellow author. Kim called Nordland’s actions “so unethical” and “not acceptable.”
“Kim says she knew Nordland was a journalist (she considers herself a journalist as well) but she says she had no idea they were having an on-the-record conversation for a story,” Spayd reported. “They were at a book festival, after all, one exclusively for authors, and Nordland never mentioned he planned to write an article for the Times.”
Spayd noted that there is no discrepancy about what happened — Nordland never said he planned to write an article or that he would use her quotes. But, he said they were fair game because she knew he was a journalist. Nordland told Spayd that Kim should have known he might end up using her comments and that he didn’t know he was going to write about the conference until later.
Times standards editor Phil Corbett acknowledged it’s “not so unusual” that a reporter finds a story in an unexpected place, but there was “an unfortunate misunderstanding or clash of expectations.” He suggested to Spayd that Nordland could have contacted her again for an interview, but that Kim wouldn’t have had any “expectation of privacy,” so Nordland didn’t necessarily cross any lines.
Spayd called that “a stretch,” writing that she thinks “Kim did have an expectation of privacy” given that it was an “artists-only,” “private” event and she was unaware he was going to use her comments. iMediaEthics agrees with Spayd that Nordland should have contacted Kim.
“I believe editors should speak to Nordland and make clear that his approach did not meet Times standards and was not good journalistic practice,” Spayd wrote, adding that she thinks the Times should add an editor’s note about the comments being “inappropriately obtained.”
Society of Professional Journalism Ethics chair Andrew Seaman suggested to iMediaEthics that Nordland could have gone to the group of fellow authors and asked for interviews about the matter he wanted to write about. “In my opinion, I think there was just a more tactful way of handling the situation,” Seaman wrote to iMediaEthics in an e-mail.
“I think it would have been wise of the reporter to go back to the group of authors to ask if they’d agree to interviews about the topic,” Seaman wrote. “For reference, the journalists can bring up what was said at the previous gathering. Then, the reporter could decide how to move forward if they decline an interview. For example, the reporter could say he or she plans to quote members of the group. At least then members of the group won’t be blindsided by the story.”
Seaman went on, “Though, I believe the situation is trickier than it appears, because there are several layers to this story. For example, the journalist attended the mixer as an author, which brings up the question of whether a participant should be writing a straight news story about the event.”
As of Sept. 18, there is no such note, but there are several unrelated corrections.
Kim has tweeted about the matter and re-tweeted others saying that Nordland was wrong.
— Suki Kim (@sukisworld) September 15, 2016
Kim pointed iMediaEthics to her article for the New Republic about the festival. She wrote in part, “The merits of the argument aside, I would not have made a negative comment about this writer in a public context, nor would I have given such a quote to a reporter, but the article indicates that’s exactly what I did.” She also called out the Times‘ Spayd for writing that Kim “considers herself a journalist” which Kim argues suggests “it’s a subjective matter, not a fact.”
Kim further noted that the Times, Nordland and Sapyd didn’t acknowledge that her comments were described as having been made during a panel discussion “when it was in fact made in private.”
iMediaEthics wrote to Nordland for comment but hasn’t had any response.