NYTimes.com: Source documents, please?

Today the New York Times published on its site this story by Gardiner Harris: Research Center Tied to Drug Company.

Public documents are the crux of this corruption story — specifically, “e-mails and internal documents from Johnson & Johnson made public in a court filing.”

The article included lots of detailed background on this complex case. However, it failed to supply or link to the source documents — or even cite the case (court, case name, docket number) in a way that would allow interested people to find the documents on their own.

I see this a lot, and it confounds me. Here, the New York Times evidently believes its readers are savvy enough to understand the risks of commercial interests undermining scientific research and — in this case — possibly putting kids’ physical and mental health at risk.

…But they expect me to just take their word about what those documents said? They don’t think I’d care to see the original context in which the statements they quoted were made? They don’t even think I might want to be able to look up the documents, or follow the case?

Obviously, the New York Times has these documents. Also, these documents are public information — so you don’t have to worry about breaking copyright or confidentiality. So why didn’t the Times simply present them?…

Assuming these documents are available online, the Times could have linked to them, either from the story or in a sidebar. If not, they could scan the most relevant ones and post them as downloadable PDFs. Or at the very least, they could cite the court case well enough to facilitate independent follow-up.

But no. The article doesn’t even say which court is hearing this case.

Well, screw that!

If you’re interested in this case (which involves Johnson & Johnson, Massachusetts General Hospital, the famed child psychiatrist Joseph Biederman and the controversial antipsychotic drug Risperdal often prescribed for kids diagnosed with bipolar disorder), here are the documents. I got that MS Word file, which contains scans of the released documents, from the blog Pharmalot (run by journalist Ed Silverman).

Took me five seconds in Google to find that. Still, why did the NY Times make me turn elsewhere?

Unfortunately, those docs don’t indicate the court case information in any way that’s easily evident to a layperson like me. So I Googled around and quickly found the class action suit. The complaint document for the suit indicates the case was filed in the US District Court of NJ as two civil actions: 3:06-cv-03044-FLW-JJH, and 3:07-cv-02224-FLW-JJH.

WHY BOTHER?

Is this more detail than most people would want? Probably. But providing that information and making those links inobtrusively demonstrates a willingness not just to inform, but to empower.

Providing options for action is a service. It demonstrates awareness and respect for the agency of readers, many of whom aren’t nearly as passive as they once were assumed to be. And it doesn’t have to clutter the story for more casual readers.

It’s the kind of touch that makes an impression. In short: it’s a brand-builder.

Right now, mainstream news organizations are losing their audiences. Little touches like this can make a news brand stand out and earn continued respect based on today’s criteria. So if you already have source information, why not share it?

Again, it confounds me why I don’t see more mainstream news orgs routinely requiring source links. This should not be optional.

I’d have noted my consternation directly to the NY Times but — surprise — they don’t allow comments on their site. I have e-mailed Harris via the Times site to request his input. Hopefully he’ll respond in a comment here or via e-mail.

9 thoughts on NYTimes.com: Source documents, please?

  1. I agree with your comments on taking their word for it. That’s the scariest part. In the age of the internet where (insert randomly made up percentage) of online information is open-source, why on earth would we believe anything the NYT says when everyone and their brother is able to offer their opinions? Without proper verification even major news organizations will be held up equally with random bloggers posting on the same topic. And, it looks like from your Googlefu and linktrail, the ‘random Bloggers’ ended up being more informative and possibly more influential that the NYT.

  2. This is one of my pet peeves about old media. They do not seem to realize that we expect rich formats to take us from two-dimensional words on a page to three-dimensional stories. It is ridiculous to quote a source or to describe a video without links to it. When will they catch on?

  3. “Assuming these documents are available online…”

    Funny. I read that and hit ctrl+t, ready to race off after ’em, then paused – stopped myself really – and read the rest of your post. You make some excellent points.

    I gotta admit though, if they started doing the leg work for us, I’d kinda miss the scavenger hunt.

  4. I agree with you that we should ALWAYS link to extra info when it’s available.
    But the ‘taking their word for it’?

    I think that’s part of the problem news organisations face… if people don’t trust the NYT to tell them the truth then what is the point of those journalists at all? Why not just link to the court papers and have done?

    As a journalist I consider it part of my job to summarise and present the facts. I’d link to the sources for those who were interested but I’d expect my story to provide a factual and accurate precis for those who didn’t have the time.

    If readers – especially people like Amy – don’t trust journalists to do that then we really are in trouble.

  5. It seems to me that trust — especially in news and information — should never be blind. It needs to be earned every day.

    This is not to meant denigrate the work of the many good journalists and news orgs out there. Rather, it’s just to say that by simply being transparent about your process wherever possible, so that people can check your sources or pursue their own inquiries further, you give people even more reason to turn to your work when they’re in need of information.

    I think for too long news orgs and journalists have relied too heavily on semi-blind faith in their news brand. Partly that was because of the limitations of print and broadcast media (no links, limited space/time, not easy to compare to other reports, etc.).

    But now, people’s access to information are changing — and so are expectations. This raises the bar for earning trust. “Because I said so” is no longer good enough if proof is just a link away.

    My point here is that linking to sources wherever possible is one important way to retain trust in this changing environment. Because failing to do so can look lazy, condescending, or like you’re hiding something.

    – Amy Gahran
    That way,

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