NYT Public Editor: I Was Wrong About Our ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ Coverage

The New York Times’ public editor on Monday retracted her criticism of the newspaper’s reporting on the Michael Brown shooting, writing that she had “misjudged” witnesses who disputed that the unarmed teen had his hands up when he was shot to death.

Margaret Sullivan wrote that her August 21 column on the Times’ reporting in Ferguson, Mo. “was substantially flawed.”

In that column, the public editor sharply criticized Times reporters’ sourcing of witness accounts of the shooting.

The newspaper had named and quoted witnesses who said Brown had his hands up when white police Officer Darren Wilson shot at him, but it granted anonymity to witnesses who agreed with Wilson’s assertion that Brown had been moving toward him. Sullivan referred to those anonymous witnesses as “ghosts” whom readers would have a hard time believing.

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“My post accused The Times of false balance … In retrospect, it’s clear to me that including that information wasn’t false balance. It was an effort to get both sides,” Sullivan wrote.

Her retraction was prompted by a Justice Department report released earlier this month that cleared Wilson of civil rights violations in the fatal shooting.

“Although there are several individuals who have stated that Brown held his hands up in an unambiguous sign of surrender prior to Wilson shooting him dead, their accounts do not support a prosecution of Wilson,” the report read.

The report found that witness testimonies describing Brown as having his hands up before Wilson shot him to death were either inconsistent with physical and forensic evidence, or inconsistent with the same witnesses’ prior statements. Other witnesses who initially supported the “hands up” narrative later recanted their testimonies.

That murky detail of the Michael Brown shooting gave rise to the “Hands up, don’t shoot!” rallying cry used by anti-police brutality protesters across the country. But since the Justice Department report was released, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog gave four Pinocchios to the “Hands up, don’t shoot” narrative. Jonathan Capehart, a black columnist for the Post, also wrote a column stating that he was wrong to have repeated that mantra.

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