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.
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.