The Times and the 'Go Big' Approach

Public Editor on Marijuana Editorials and Campus Assault Accusation

By - AUG. 2, 2014

WHEN The New York Times decides to put its full weight behind a topic, it packs a powerful punch.

That’s true on the opinion side of the paper, as with the current editorial series on legalizing marijuana. It’s true on the news side, too, as in a recent 5,000-word article about a single sexual-assault case on an upstate New York college campus; it started on the front page and continued on two full pages inside.

Reading these pieces and hearing reader reaction made me wonder why some stories or projects deserve this “go big or go home” treatment in The Times. How can their success be measured? And does it ever amount to overkill?

In the case of the pot series, it wasn’t just the length of the project that made it different. The use of the Sunday Review section front to kick it off was new, as was having editorials, normally unsigned, carry authors’ names.

“We decided we wanted to shout something out, to really crank up the volume,” said Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor.

The topic deserved the big play “not because we want everybody to go out and smoke all the pot they can,” Mr. Rosenthal said, but because of the effect laws against marijuana have on society - particularly the harm they do to young black men. The decision to sign the editorials, he said, was an experiment, and he noted a distinction: “These are not columns. The authors are writing on behalf of the editorial board.” The use of the Review section front was another way to increase visibility and a signal that this was something unusual.

Mr. Rosenthal is aware that there is a possibility of going too far. But he said, the chance to make a societal difference provided adequate justification.

The article about a sexual assault accusation at Hobart and William Smith Colleges used a single situation to illuminate a broader issue. The story of Anna, whose last name was withheld but whose photograph was used, “allowed us to get into one of the key issues on sexual assault, which is how do colleges adjudicate these cases,” said Matt Purdy, an assistant managing editor who supervises the investigative team. In doing so, it delved deep into the student’s own story, and into the process that ended up clearing the accused students, members of the football team.

“We work hard to use that substantial hammer on something important and relevant, not just because it fascinates someone,” Mr. Purdy said.

As for why the story is told through a one-situation lens, the deputy investigations editor Christine Kay said it had to do with impact and keeping the reader’s interest. “Often the best way is to tell the narrower story,” she said. “You develop the characters, and that becomes a thread that pulls the reader through the entire piece.”

Finding the right story to tell is crucial. The reporter who wrote the Hobart and William Smith piece, Walt Bogdanich, had earlier written a major article about a botched police investigation into an alleged sexual assault at Florida State University involving its star quarterback, Jameis Winston. Afterward, Mr. Bogdanich told me, he received a number of tips about cases at other colleges.

The Hobart and William Smith tip intrigued him: “I saw it as an opportunity to explore what happens when students opt to adjudicate their complaints through their school, rather than the criminal justice system.” What was more, he was able to gain unusual access to Anna and to internal school documents.

Mr. Bogdanich’s story was riveting and disturbing. It was protested by the college, which rejected some of the story’s conclusions, airing its complaints on its website and in emails to The Times, which have been answered in detail.

Major stories can carry major consequences for the reputations of institutions or individuals, and this, too, is something that Times editors say they are always aware of. “We have to always think about the fact that we affect people’s lives,” Mr. Purdy said. “We can’t be cavalier about that.”

In both recent cases, editors told me they were pleased with the national discussion that was generated, which included an unhappy response from the White House to the pot series. At Hobart and William Smith, officials are now rethinking how they handle sexual-assault claims. And when I spoke with Mr. Rosenthal, he was between interviews about the editorials, with High Times magazine waiting on deck.

“With something this big, we have to worry that we’re not just pleased with the sound of our own voice,” Mr. Rosenthal told me. “It has to be something that matters.”

Still, some readers see the campaign as oddly over the top for the normally restrained Times, and I can see why.

Did these projects measure up to the substantial resources put into them - the great deal of staff time and the space in the paper?

I can think of other topics that might have been more deserving of the unusually huge treatment in the editorial pages. Climate change, comes to mind, for example, or income inequality. The pot-legalization movement, after all, is already well on its way.

I have also heard criticism that the investigative practice of focusing on one case - as The Times also did in 2013 with its exhaustive and excellent series, “Invisible Child” - runs the risk of missing the larger picture. That point of view is worth considering.

But both projects, in my opinion, cleared the bar of relevance and significance. And, because of their impact, they have a chance of making a difference on important problems.



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