On Monday, the day when the grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson and rioting ensued, the New York Times published a story that provided the name of the town and the street where Wilson lives. The Times gave out this information in the context of reporting that Wilson married a fellow police officer Barbara Spradling in a “quiet wedding” last month, and that the two own a home together.
The Times story has been widely criticized. For example, Howard Kurtz called it “reckless.” Kurtz noted that the paper has “endangered Wilson’s life.” He concluded: “Journalism is full of close calls. This is not one of them. The Times should apologize.”
The Times, though, has not apologized. Instead, it defends the story. Philip Corbett, the Times’ associate managing editor for standards, served up this defense to Erik Wemple, who reports on media for the Washington Post:
The Times did not “reveal” anything here. The name of the street was widely reported as far back as August, including in the Washington Post.
Wemple followed up by asking whether the standard for publication of a street name is whether others have already revealed it. Corbett responded:
We would have to look at the issue case by case. But if you’re considering whether to withhold information from a story, the question of whether that information is widely available or has been previously reported would certainly be a factor to consider.
But before a news organization considers whether to withhold information from a story, it must first conclude that the information (here the name of Wilson’s street) belongs in the story. Absent that determination, the name of the street isn’t being “withheld,” any more than information about Wilson’s shoe size is.
In his response to Wemple, the Timesman ducks the threshold question: what did Wilson’s street name add to the story of the officer’s recent marriage?
He also downplays, if not ignores, the danger the Times’ disclosure poses to Wilson and his bride. Even if the Times wasn’t the first news organization to disclose Wilson’s street, its disclosure increased the number of people who knew this information at just the moment when rage against Wilson was about to reach its peak.
Wemple wasn’t diverted by the Times’ sophistry. He concluded:
In any story about newlyweds who jointly own a home, it makes sense to describe where that home is located. But the street name? Such detail adds nil news value to a scoop about a man at the center of one of the most contentious news stories of our time. Leave it out.
Because the street name had “nil news value” and because it was disclosed on a day when anti-police violence predictably broke out, it’s difficult to resist the conclusion that the New York Times included the street name as a way of trying to punish Wilson to one degree or another.