What is Behind the New York Times’ Inaccurate Headline of Their Story on the Eviction of Beijing Artists?

[UPDATE: The New York Times issued the following correction to the online version of the story:

Correction: An earlier version of this article’s headline referred incorrectly to the police’s role in attacks on an artists’ community on the northern edge of Beijing. As the article made clear, the artists said that they were beaten by masked men and that the police did not intervene to stop them; the artists did not say they were beaten by the police.

There is no mention of why or how they made the mistake, but it is great to see the New York Times listening to all of us who raised this issue. One reader has offered a theory as to the source of the original headline in this comment.]

Early Monday morning 100 men armed with clubs attacked artists in Beijing’s Zhengyang Art Zone (UPDATE: this comment to the Guardian article provides a very informative background to the legal issues surrounding the development of the artist zones). The artists, with reason, had resisted eviction notices. Several of the injured artists, along with Ai Weiwei, briefly marched down Chang’an Avenue before Beijing police stopped them. I followed the updates of the protest on Twitter, read the initial Chinese blog postings about the early morning attack, and in no case did anyone say that the Beijing police beat them. Xinhua reports that today Chinese police arrested 18 people for the attack.

Andrew Jacobs of The New York Times wrote a good summary of the incident. Nowhere in his story did Mr. Jacobs write that Beijing police hit any of the artists or protestors. But the original headline the New York Times gave to this article, a headline I assume was written by an editor in the US and not by Mr. Jacobs, said “Beijing Police Beat Artists Protesting Evictions”. Several hours later, after realizing the facts did not fit the headline, the paper changed the headline to “Evicted Artists Protest After Attack in Beijing”. I could not find any notice or explanation of this change.

The reality is that while police did not participate in the beatings, it is very likely that the local cops knew in advance of the raid on the compound and had an interest in letting it proceed, within reason. But that is still not quite the same as saying the police beat the artists, and the New York Times has admitted their mistake by changing the headline.

I think the New York Times should explain why they wrote such an inflammatory and inaccurate headline, and disclose who wrote it. I also think that newspapers, at least in their online versions, should have a track change function so readers can see the changes made after the story has first been published online. Readers have a right to know what changes in a story, and why, especially from “papers of record” that will soon be charging online.

US-China relations have enough problems. It is distressing that there may be such clear bias within the New York Times editorial ranks (if there is a better explanation please tell us). This kind of coverage, from such an influential newspaper, furthers the miscommunications and misunderstandings that only exacerbate the legitimate and growing tensions within the US-China relationship.

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52 thoughts on “What is Behind the New York Times’ Inaccurate Headline of Their Story on the Eviction of Beijing Artists?

  1. Good post, and I totally agree that the NYT should start including a track change function in its online version. The lack of one means that the editors and writers really don’t have to take responsibility for their mistakes – or the damage that they may cause – before the stories go into the print edition. If you follow the NYT site during the day, you can watch in real-time as stories are changed. Sometimes that’s the addition of information. But when it’s the subtraction – especially the subtraction of a mistake – somebody should have to take responsibility for it.

    FYI – here’s another example of this kind of revisionism at the NYT, from my blog, a couple of years ago:

    http://shanghaiscrap.com/?p=1032

    • Thanks for the comment. We obviously agree. The challenge is that kind of change tracking is anathema to traditional editorial folks; it is part of the “we know better than readers” mentality that may have worked once but no longer does. I want the New York Times to be a great paper, but they seem to be increasingly infected with the same disease that has so damaged America–the unwillingness to hold people in power accountable.

  2. lots of inflammatory headlines around china issues from usa/uk .. sometimes on stories written by people you know .. editors, company policy, government propaganda, i don’t know “who”, but it is certainly extremely frequent ..

  3. Good post, and I totally agree that the NYT should start including a track change function in its online version. The lack of one means that the editors and writers really don't have to take responsibility for their mistakes – or the damage that they may cause – before the stories go into the print edition. If you follow the NYT site during the day, you can watch in real-time as stories are changed. Sometimes that's the addition of information. But when it's the subtraction – especially the subtraction of a mistake – somebody should have to take responsibility for it.

    FYI – here's another example of this kind of revisionism at the NYT, from my blog, a couple of years ago:

    http://shanghaiscrap.com/?p=1032

  4. Thanks for the comment. We obviously agree. The challenge is that kind of change tracking is anathema to traditional editorial folks; it is part of the “we know better than readers” mentality that may have worked once but no longer does. I want the New York Times to be a great paper, but they seem to be increasingly infected with the same disease that has so damaged America–the unwillingness to hold people in power accountable.

  5. lots of inflammatory headlines around china issues from usa/uk .. sometimes on stories written by people you know .. editors, company policy, government propaganda, i don't know “who”, but it is certainly extremely frequent ..

  6. It is true, the NYT should amend their journalism errors. But are you aware of the kind of things Chinese media writes about outsiders? Just take Huanqiu for example.

  7. The NYT saw the error and corrected it. What more do you want? Kow tows from the chief sub? It was a mistake. They happen. The world still spins. That is the great thing about online news – mistakes can be corrected, stories updated, etc. Sometimes I think you ‘China bloggers’ want the moon on a stick (although would probably still complain that the stick is too long).

    • I have never actually thought of the moon on a stick; I assume it would heavy, dusty and unpleasant.

      Seriously, I don’t understand why this is a blogger, China or otherwise, issue. The original headline was a complete misrepresentation of the facts outlined in the story written by the paper’s own excellent correspondent. And it is a very explosive misrepresentation. Readers should expect and demand accuracy from a great institution like the New York Times. If the Times can just get away with “everyone makes mistakes” then it has no business having the influence and reputation it has.

      • I see your point Bill, but for me, the mistake was rectified. If it was in print, of course there should be a correction printed. I feel though that online has its own rules and its immediacy allows for these kind of incidents to be identified and rectified and for life to move on.

        By the way, is there any way to contact you by email?

        • I regularly read the UK paper ‘The Guardian’ in its online form, and the same is true there, headlines written by sub-editors that are frequently way out of sync with the tone and content of the article. As well as carelessness (recession -> job cuts -> overworked staff etc), it seems the more fickle reading habits of online readers, i.e that they are more likely to be browsing news while looking at other websites than sitting reading the whole website in one go, coupled with the non-linear structure of the online papers, might be leading to increasingly sensationalistic attention-grabbing headlines, and thus an overall tabloidism creeping in…? Which in turn leads to a general dumbing down, and a work climate where headline writers think they can get away with scribbling lazy headlines without digesting the article… but I would doubt the NYT has a specific agenda to smear China, despite what many a Chinese nationalist would like to believe about Western media…

          • I agree they don’t have a specific agenda to smear China; ignorance or worse is behind those accusations. But a lot of people in China do believe that, and that is one of the reasons why I think they New York Times should explain what happened here.

          • Argh, no, no, and no again!
            The “hurt feelings of the Chinese people” is political bullshit, and is not a good reason for western institutions to start changing on the off chance that they should ever offend someone Chinese.
            The NYT offends all of America’s right wing all day every day. They don’t have to change because of that. Nor do they have to change for China.
            As for this particular headline, the rather subtle distinction between “Chinese police encourage rent-a-mob to beat up artists” and “Chinese police beat up artists” is one which may not be of the greatest importance to the average New Yorker. It was a small error; it was corrected. You want to track what goes on on the NYT, get yourself working the wayback machine.

          • who said anything about “hurting feelings of the chinese people”? why is it so unreasonable to ask such an influential newspaper to accurately present the stories they report, and when they make a mistake and correct that mistake, to be transparent with their readers instead of just hoping no one notices?

          • Who said anything about hurting the feelings of the Chinese people? You did.
            I quote: “a lot of people in China do believe that [the NYT has an agenda to smear China] and that is one of the reasons why I think [the NYT] should explain what happened here.”

            You explicitly cite Chinese people’s paranoia as a reason for the NYT to change its operating policies. I’m saying that’s a crap reason.

            There are other arguments presented here and by Adam Minter, and some of them are reasonable arguments. I don’t necessarily agree with the “every correction must be documented” idea, because I think the web is by its nature a more flexible place, and people don’t expect the same of online reports that they do of paper reports. But that’s a separate argument. I am happy to accept that there is a *reasonable* argument to be made that the NYT should flag up corrections in order to be accurate and authoritative.

            But the crazy ass beliefs of ignorant Chinese people locked whose only experience of the NYT is through the twisted prism of their state-run media and the anti-CNN activists the CPC loves to love – these are not a reasonable argument for changing NYT policy. Crazy ass beliefs are not a good argument for doing anything.

            I’m just saying, don’t mix up your legitimate complaints with rubbish from the CPC political playbook.

  8. It is true, the NYT should amend their journalism errors. But are you aware of the kind of things Chinese media writes about outsiders? Just take Huanqiu for example.

    • Yes, I am quite aware of those issues. Don’t you think the New York Times should aspire to a higher standard than state-owned media?

      Thanks for commenting.

  9. Didn’t catch this myself, and I agree with your instinct that this was an editor mistake and not Jacobs’. The classic arrangement of course is that copy editors who are privy to the knowledge of how big the space for the headline will be in print wrote headlines. This is a good arrangement, because those copy editors also were tasked with reading the whole article and should have grasped its subtleties (while fixing ambiguities, any writing mistakes, and catching factual errors). The challenge for media now is that they don’t have this thoughtful period leading up to publication, and I really have no idea who is responsible for Web headlines at the Times.

    Anyway the phenomenon reminds me of some of the early US reporting on the Xinjiang violence last summer that essentially assumed police were behind the violence. This in some cases was before the reporters (including Jacobs I think) showed up in Urumqi. I think a lot of very good reports from correspondents in China get gummed up by editors in New York, and it must be frustrating to see this happen on one’s work.

    Also agree this sort of change should be noted. A change in the story content is recorded per NYT policy, but the hed is all many people read and therefore just as important!

  10. The NYT saw the error and corrected it. What more do you want? Kow tows from the chief sub? It was a mistake. They happen. The world still spins. That is the great thing about online news – mistakes can be corrected, stories updated, etc. Sometimes I think you 'China bloggers' want the moon on a stick (although would probably still complain that the stick is too long).

  11. I have never actually thought of the moon on a stick; I assume it would heavy, dusty and unpleasant.

    Seriously, I don't understand why this is a blogger, China or otherwise, issue. The original headline was a complete misrepresentation of the facts outlined in the story written by the paper's own excellent correspondent. And it is a very explosive misrepresentation. Readers should expect and demand accuracy from a great institution like the New York Times. If the Times can just get away with “everyone makes mistakes” then it has no business having the influence and reputation it has.

  12. I see your point Bill, but for me, the mistake was rectified. If it was in print, of course there should be a correction printed. I feel though that online has its own rules and its immediacy allows for these kind of incidents to be identified and rectified and for life to move on.

    By the way, is there any way to contact you by email?

  13. I regularly read the UK paper 'The Guardian' in its online form, and the same is true there, headlines written by sub-editors that are frequently way out of sync with the tone and content of the article. As well as carelessness (recession -> job cuts -> overworked staff etc), it seems the more fickle reading habits of online readers, i.e that they are more likely to be browsing news while looking at other websites than sitting reading the whole website in one go, coupled with the non-linear structure of the online papers, might be leading to increasingly sensationalistic attention-grabbing headlines, and thus an overall tabloidism creeping in…? Which in turn leads to a general dumbing down, and a work climate where headline writers think they can get away with scribbling lazy headlines without digesting the article… but I would doubt the NYT has a specific agenda to smear China, despite what many a Chinese nationalist would like to believe about Western media…

  14. Didn't catch this myself, and I agree with your instinct that this was an editor mistake and not Jacobs'. The classic arrangement of course is that copy editors who are privy to the knowledge of how big the space for the headline will be in print wrote headlines. This is a good arrangement, because those copy editors also were tasked with reading the whole article and should have grasped its subtleties (while fixing ambiguities, any writing mistakes, and catching factual errors). The challenge for media now is that they don't have this thoughtful period leading up to publication, and I really have no idea who is responsible for Web headlines at the Times.

    Anyway the phenomenon reminds me of some of the early US reporting on the Xinjiang violence last summer that essentially assumed police were behind the violence. This in some cases was before the reporters (including Jacobs I think) showed up in Urumqi. I think a lot of very good reports from correspondents in China get gummed up by editors in New York, and it must be frustrating to see this happen on one's work.

    Also agree this sort of change should be noted. A change in the story content is recorded per NYT policy, but the hed is all many people read and therefore just as important!

  15. A couple of responses to Mike.

    First, the NYT’s online audience is many many times larger than the print audience (though not nearly as profitable – another topic), and so I find it quite difficult to understand how the NYT – and your comment – suggests that a correction is only in order when it’s made on dead trees.

    Second, for the last decade the traditional media has argued for its expensive, slow-moving relevance by suggesting that – unlike blogs – it’s accountable, and that it takes its time to get facts straight via real reporting. But, increasingly, via venues like the NYT’s site, it’s obvious that the traditional media are trying to have it both ways. They want to cling to their reputation as deliberate, fact-checked reporters, all the while benefiting from the immediacy of online journalism, ie immediately correct your mistakes and not have to take responsibility for them. To my way of thinking, that’s the very definition of arrogance, as well as being a very raw deal for readers.

  16. Shanghai Scrap » A few thoughts on the NYT’s memory hole.

  17. I agree they don't have a specific agenda to smear China. But a lot of people do think, and that is one of the reasons why I think they New York Times should explain what happened here.

  18. A couple of responses to Mike.

    First, the NYT's online audience is many many times larger than the print audience (though not nearly as profitable – another topic), and so I find it quite difficult to understand how the NYT – and your comment – suggests that a correction is only in order when it's made on dead trees.

    Second, for the last decade the traditional media has argued for its expensive, slow-moving relevance by suggesting that – unlike blogs – it's accountable, and that it takes its time to get facts straight via real reporting. But, increasingly, via venues like the NYT's site, it's obvious that the traditional media are trying to have it both ways. They want to cling to their reputation as deliberate, fact-checked reporters, all the while benefiting from the immediacy of online journalism, ie immediately correct your mistakes and not have to take responsibility for them. To my way of thinking, that's the very definition of arrogance, as well as being a very raw deal for readers.

  19. Argh, no, no, and no again!
    The “hurt feelings of the Chinese people” is political bullshit, and is not a good reason for western institutions to start changing on the off chance that they should ever offend someone Chinese.
    The NYT offends all of America's right wing all day every day. They don't have to change because of that. Nor do they have to change for China.
    As for this particular headline, the rather subtle distinction between “Chinese police encourage rent-a-mob to beat up artists” and “Chinese police beat up artists” is one which may not be of the greatest importance to the average New Yorker. It was a small error; it was corrected. You want to track what goes on on the NYT, get yourself working the wayback machine.

  20. who said anything about “hurting feelings of the chinese people”? why is it so unreasonable to ask such an influential newspaper to accurately present the stories they report, and when they make a mistake and correct that mistake, to be transparent with their readers instead of just hoping no one notices?

  21. NYT now have now added: “Correction: An earlier version of this article’s headline referred incorrectly to the police’s role in attacks on an artists’ community on the northern edge of Beijing. As the article made clear, the artists said that they were beaten by masked men and that the police did not intervene to stop them; the artists did not say they were beaten by the police.”

    When I first read the article the headline threw me as well as it didn’t match what I’d been hearing (or indeed what was written in the article). But if you played the video on the page, at the very end this statement was attributed to Ai Weiwei. Of course that video is “currently unavailable.”

    • Interesting. I didn’t watch the video, now gone. I followed Ai Weiwei on Twitter during the protest on Chang’an Beijing and at the end he actually said the police were reasonable. Did the New York Times do that video or was it from a wire service?

      • Agree with your impressions of what AWW was saying on twitter. The photographs on flickr also make the police response to the protest look fairly restrained.

  22. For the record my intention with this post was not to defend the honor or the Beijing police. I make pretty clear the almost certain collusion between the local cops and the developer at the Zhangyang Art Zone

    I just want one of the most influential newspapers in the world to accurately report on China. I think we should all want that, especially the excellent journalists and reporters left at the New York Times

  23. NYT now have now added: “Correction: An earlier version of this article's headline referred incorrectly to the police's role in attacks on an artists' community on the northern edge of Beijing. As the article made clear, the artists said that they were beaten by masked men and that the police did not intervene to stop them; the artists did not say they were beaten by the police.”

    When I first read the article the headline threw me as well as it didn't match what I'd been hearing (or indeed what was written in the article). But if you played the video on the page, at the very end this statement was attributed to Ai Weiwei. Of course that video is “currently unavailable.”

  24. Interesting. I didn't watch the video, now gone. I followed Ai Weiwei on Twitter during the protest on Chang'an Beijing and at the end he actually said the police were reasonable. Did the New York Times do that video or was it from a wire service?

  25. For the record my intention with this post was not to defend the honor or the Beijing police. I make pretty clear the almost certain collusion between the local cops and the developer at the Zhangyang Art Zone

    I just want one of the most influential newspapers in the world to accurately report on China. I think we should all want that, especially the excellent journalists and reporters left at the New York Times

  26. Agree with your impressions of what AWW was saying on twitter. The photographs on flickr also make the police response to the protest look fairly restrained.

  27. Who said anything about hurting the feelings of the Chinese people? You did.
    I quote: “a lot of people in China do believe that [the NYT has an agenda to smear China] and that is one of the reasons why I think [the NYT] should explain what happened here.”

    You explicitly cite Chinese people's paranoia as a reason for the NYT to change its operating policies. I'm saying that's a crap reason.

    There are other arguments presented here and by Adam Minter, and some of them are reasonable arguments. I don't necessarily agree with the “every correction must be documented” idea, because I think the web is by its nature a more flexible place, and people don't expect the same of online reports that they do of paper reports. But that's a separate argument. I am happy to accept that there is a *reasonable* argument to be made that the NYT should flag up corrections in order to be accurate and authoritative.

    But the crazy ass beliefs of ignorant Chinese people locked whose only experience of the NYT is through the twisted prism of their state-run media and the anti-CNN activists the CPC loves to love – these are not a reasonable argument for changing NYT policy. Crazy ass beliefs are not a good argument for doing anything.

    I'm just saying, don't mix up your legitimate complaints with rubbish from the CPC political playbook.

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