Carrying the facts too far

In a recent article (“The Great Deflation: Japan Goes From Dynamic to Disheartened,” Oct. 17), Martin Fackler wrote that Japan had gone from “Godzilla” to “an afterthought” in the world’s economy. Given that the World Economic Forum ranked Japan’s economy sixth in terms of competitiveness this year, I hardly think describing it as “an afterthought” can be defended. It makes for colorful writing, but in a newspaper, I expect at least a passing resemblance to the truth.

I find the increasing reliance on flash and exaggeration in U.S. media disturbing. Lincoln said, “Let the people know the facts and the country will be safe.” How can a democracy function if news organizations stretch, bend and deform the facts in order to better entertain their readers/viewers/listeners?

The Times continues to write stories that emphasize drama and emotive writing over facts.

Ward Wilson

Kyle Crichton, regional editor for East Asia: As the article made clear, the “Godzilla” Japan was the one of the 1980s: it spurred American business to improve its quality and competitiveness, raised debates here about the need for industrial planning, moved the Reagan administration to negotiate auto import quotas, and raised public fears that most of United States industry would soon fall under Japanese ownership.

Compared with that, I think it is quite fair and accurate to describe the Japan of today as an afterthought. Sure, Japan is still competitive and remains at least the third largest economy in the world. But when was the last time the Japanese economy was a source of anxiety in Washington or anywhere else, other than for its pitiful performance?

Arthur S. Brisbane: When Mr. Fackler wrote this piece, he faced a real challenge: how to bring alive for a wide audience a story about the economic decline of Japan. On many counts, the resulting work was a tremendous success: it was selected for Page 1 of the Sunday Times, and readers liked it so well that it vaulted to the top of The Times’s “most e-mailed” list. Mr. Fackler accomplished this in part by describing the experiences of real people.

But the article also buzzed with vivid language that set up the tale, including this sentence: “For nearly a generation now, the nation has been trapped in low growth and a corrosive downward spiral of prices, known as deflation, in the process shriveling from an economic Godzilla to little more than an afterthought in the global economy.”

Mr. Crichton, the editor of the story, offers a reasonable defense, but I agree with the objection raised by Mr. Wilson, the reader. While it is true that Japan Inc. may not threaten to topple the U.S.’s economic supremacy, as Godzilla famously toppled parts of the Tokyo skyline, it is a real stretch to downgrade Japan to an “afterthought.”

Is this kind of overreaching a big problem at The Times? Well, it’s not Godzillian, but it does tick off some readers, and that is worth pausing to think about.

Complaints about overstatement by reporters and headline writers come to me frequently from people who are extremely close readers of the paper. Many of these, like Times readers in general, are highly educated and bring very high expectations. Their complaints often seem to carry the thought: New York Times, you are the last bastion of reliable daily journalism; do not fail me now.

These well-informed readers object to exaggeration especially when it is used in subject areas where precision is prized — areas like economics, for example, and science.

Jason Hodin, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford, faulted another fascinating Page 1 story for the sin of stretching. The article, by Kirk Johnson, appeared in print on Oct. 7 under the headline “With Scientists, Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery.”

It dealt with a new study of the mystifying phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder, in which 20 to 40 percent of U.S. bee colonies are believed to have died off. Mr. Hodin contended that the study identified new factors that appear to be “linked” to and “implicated” in the die-off, while the Times story and headline stretched the facts to conclude more.

The article described two new suspect factors — a virus and a fungus, acting in combination: “together, the research suggests, they are 100 percent fatal.”

Mr. Johnson, who was not responsible for the headline, said: “That Colony Collapse had been finally and permanently solved seemed neither evident to me, nor — in rereading the story as it appeared in the paper — the message of what we published. It certainly was not the intent.”

Indeed, there were passages in the story that offered caveats, including this: “Scientists in the project emphasize that their conclusions are not the final word. The pattern, they say, seems clear, but more research is needed to determine, for example, how further outbreaks might be prevented, and how much environmental factors like heat, cold or drought might play a role.”

Notwithstanding the caveats and the intent, however, the combination of the headline and some of the language in the article created a more conclusive impression. As I have learned at the public editor’s desk, that’s the kind of stretch that some readers are quick to spot.

Marriage and Achievement

The heavy majority of couples typically featured in the Sunday wedding announcements either attended elite universities, hold corporate management positions or have parents with corporate management positions. It’s nice to learn about the nuptials of the privileged, but Times readers would benefit from learning about a more representative sampling of weddings in our diverse city.

I’m curious as to how editors select which announcements to publish, and why editors don’t make a sustained effort to include different types of couples.

Max Sarinsky

Robert Woletz, society editor: The Weddings/Celebrations pages are truly open to everyone, and The Times persistently encourages couples from all backgrounds to submit their stories. And they do, typically in the hundreds during the peak wedding season.

Like any other part of The Times, however, the section’s editors and writers must identify and put before its readers the most interesting stories. Given the finite amount of space and personnel that The Times can devote to reporting on these couples, only a representative sample of what has been submitted appears in the Weddings/Celebrations pages on any given week.

The only truly fair way to select one submission over another is on the basis of achievement. This paper makes no secret of the fact that it is ever on the lookout for those who seem destined to play a role in advancing the sciences, law, the arts, engineering, communications and other fields. When the daughter of a seamstress and a line cook graduates at the top of her medical school class at Yale or Stanford, or creates a well-received play or innovative Web site, that represents an achievement for both the subject and her parents. It also tells the story of how one generation of this nation of immigrants builds on the next.

Yes, readers are also likely to see items about the unions of sons and daughters of corporate managers, and even a few who can trace their roots to the landing of the Mayflower. But you will also find police officers, prosecutors and military personnel. And you will encounter those like Jennifer Keen and Paul Sousa, a formerly homeless couple who turned their lives around (“Vows,” June 28, 2009). What Ms. Keen and Mr. Sousa achieved was worthy of recognition, and demonstrated that the definition of achievement is ever-changing.

This column was originally published in The New York Times on Oct. 23, 2010.

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