The New York Times NEW YORK – APRIL 21: The New York Times logo is seen on the headquarters building on April 21, 2011 in New York City. The New York Times profits fell 58 percent in the first quarter of 2011. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty Images)

One piece of The New York Times‘ reporting on the January fatal shooting in Tuscaloosa, Alabama that has been questioned since it was published in March is now being retracted. That shooting killed 23-year-old woman Jamea Harris, and it led to still-pending capital murder charges for Michael Davis and Darius Miles. It also led to a major controversy around the Alabama Crimson Tide basketball team, and to the Times placing a player at the scene who it’s now been confirmed was not present. And that’s a huge black eye for the Times.

The connection to the Tide basketball team starts with Miles being a player for them then. (He was dismissed in the wake of that incident). Other Tide players Jaden Bradley and Brandon Miller were also at the scene, as per multiple reports from January, and they cooperated with police. Neither Bradley nor Miller was charged, but Miller’s involvement in particular drew controversy following reports that he had responded to a request from Miles to bring him his (Miles’) gun.

Amidst that controversy, on March 15, the Times published a piece from Billy Witz, a long-time college sports reporter for the paper. That piece seemed to indicate a huge development in the case, citing a source “familiar with the investigation.” That source said that the passenger in Miller’s car whose identity had not been determined was another Alabama player, freshman guard Kai Spears.

But while Spears only said “I’m sorry, I’m not going to be able to speak about that” to Witz pre-publication, he immediately pushed back on that post-publication, saying the Times piece was published with ‘complete disregard for the truth.” The Alabama athletic department also called Witz’s story “inaccurate” and said “there were no current student-athletes present at the scene other than Brandon Miller and Jaden Bradley, who are both fully cooperating witnesses.” And Spears’ father Christian, the director of athletics at Marshall University, put out a statement saying he was “incredibly disappointed in the irresponsible and demonstrably false reporting by the NY Times” and “We are exploring all legal options at this time.”

That led to Kai Spears suing the Times for defamation Wednesday. And that’s now led to a new Times story saying an affidavit in that lawsuit indicates Spears was provably elsewhere at the time and the passenger in Miller’s car was actually student manager Cooper Lee. And Lee confirmed that in an interview with the reporter on that new story, Steve Eder. Here’s more from that piece, which also indicates the Times will add an editor’s note to their original story:

The manager, Cooper Lee, acknowledged his presence at the crime scene to The New York Times after another player, Kai Spears, sued the newspaper this week for having reported in March that he had been in Mr. Miller’s car when its windshield was struck by bullets.

Mr. Spears has denied being in the car and said in the lawsuit that being falsely identified as the passenger “will forever label him as a person associated with a murder.” The lawsuit, which seeks damages for defamation and invasion of privacy, disclosed for the first time that Mr. Lee had gotten into Mr. Miller’s car at 1:40 a.m. on Jan. 15, just minutes before the shooting.

“I can confirm that I was the passenger in Brandon Miller’s car at the time of the shooting,” Mr. Lee, 21, said in an email to The Times. Mr. Lee, who is not accused of wrongdoing, declined to comment further beyond confirming that Mr. Spears was not in the car.

…A spokeswoman for The Times, Danielle Rhoades Ha, said the article would be corrected.

“We have a longstanding policy of correcting errors,” she said in a statement. “Based on information in the affidavit and new reporting by our newsroom, we believe our original story was not accurate and plan to append an editor’s note to the story.”

They have since done that. Here’s that editor’s note, which is now at the top of Witz’s March 15 piece:

The original version of this article, published March 15, misidentified the person who was in the car with Brandon Miller when the shooting occurred.

Based on information from a person familiar with the case, the article erroneously identified that person as Kai Spears, a freshman basketball player. After the article was initially published, Alabama’s athletic director and Spears’s father denied that Spears was present. The Times included those responses and reviewed its reporting, but did not conclude that any other change to the article was warranted at that time.

On Wednesday, Spears filed a defamation suit against The Times that included new details about the incident. Based on that information, editors assigned further reporting, which determined that the other person at the scene was not Spears but Cooper Lee, a student manager for the team. The Times regrets the error in the initial report.

This article has been revised to remove the erroneous information; the latest updates can be seen here.

That’s a reasonable editor’s note and correction. It’s unclear if that alone will be enough to resolve the defamation lawsuit; some defamation lawsuits are dropped after the initial story is corrected appropriately, but many are not, especially with a correction this long after the fact. But regardless of what happens on the legal front, the erroneous placement of Spears rather than Lee at the scene is a major reporting error from the Times, and one that raises questions about their coverage of criminal incidents.

The issue here starts with Witz’s anonymous “source familiar with the investigation,” who provided the only evidence in that piece that Spears was the passenger in Miller’s vehicle. Anonymous sources are absolutely sometimes necessary, but they can create plenty of problems on even solely-sports topics. The severity of those potential problems escalates in stories outside sports, such as with this shooting.

And while there are cases where it has been justified and worthwhile to run with information from a single anonymous source without supporting documentation, those cases are rare. And they create a risk for the publishing outlet; that’s transferring their credibility to this source. If the source’s information is inaccurate (as it was here), that reflects poorly on them.

It should be noted, too, that this wasn’t necessarily an intentional deception from the source. Like news reports, police investigations get things wrong as well. So even if the investigation had concluded Spears was there, and the source relayed that to the Times, that’s still not a fact that “he was there.” And there’s a responsibility for the Times in publishing that. An erroneous note in a police file is one thing, but only a limited thing if it’s never released to the public (and it’s not clear that there was even a note here; the initial story has a detective testifying about an unidentified passenger, and then the source telling Witz the passenger was Spears, but there may not have been anything on Spears written in the file).

By publishing this, the Times brought that information to the public. And that has impacts on the public perception of Spears. And that information has now proven to be false. Beyond Lee’s affidavit and on-the-record comments to Eder, Spears also supplied evidence of his actual whereabouts in the suit; he was in a different car with high school friends, and there’s a FaceTime call with Bradley where Bradley shows Spears the bullet holes in Miller’s car. So this Times piece, and their refusal to correct it until now, meant that for three months, Spears was claimed to be at the scene of a shooting he was not at. (And that’s a particularly big deal with a shooting this high-profile that received huge amounts of national and international media coverage, with much of that based on a Times piece now proven erroneous.)

Of course, this possibly could have been avoided with a stronger pre-publication denial from Spears and/or Alabama. If Spears had outright told Witz “I was not there” instead of “I’m sorry, I’m not going to be able to speak about that,” this story might never have run. (And that’s potentially a result of athletic department instructions not to discuss the incident; those types of instructions can be well-intentioned, but they can certainly backfire if they prevent verbatim denials and lead to inaccurate information being published.) If Alabama had sent Witz their “there were no current student-athletes present at the scene other than Brandon Miller and Jaden Bradley” statement ahead of publication instead of after it, that also might have stopped this. (It’s unclear what interactions Witz had with the athletic department pre-publication.)

But the second-biggest issue here, beyond the Times publishing this inaccurate information in the first place, is how long they refused to correct it. They did update the piece with the denials from Christian Spears and the Alabama athletic department (but not Kai Spears’ comment on their “complete disregard for the truth”), but they left in the information from Witz’s source that Kai Spears was at the shooting. And they did so for months, until this lawsuit. If Spears had not had the resources and inclination to actually file a lawsuit here, and if Lee had not identified himself as the passenger here in this affidavit and then to Eder (and that comes with potential reputation consequences for him!), this erroneous report might never have been corrected.

And that is not a good look for the Times, or their reporting policies and procedures. Every news outlet makes mistakes. But this one was seemingly preventable if the standard for placing a player at the scene of a shooting was higher than just “a source familiar with the investigation,” or if more had been done to figure out that this would be disputed by Spears and Alabama.

And this was seemingly correctable after those strong disputes. Those included Christian Spears’ comment that this was “demonstrably false” (which it has turned out to be). After comments like that, there could have been additional reporting to figure out what actually happened and why this was “demonstrably false.” Instead, the Times waited to correct this until after they were hit with a lawsuit. That’s a problem, and it raises questions about how much to trust their reporting overall.

One article alone does not make or break a publication’s reputation, of course. And there have been many more severe black eyes for the Times in the past (serial plagiarist and fabricator Jayson Blair, erroneous reporting in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq). But being this wrong for this long on who was at the scene of a shooting, despite strong disputes of their reporting, is an awful look.

[The New York Times]




About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.