The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New York Times half-apologizes for story on Irish victims of balcony collapse

A fourth-floor balcony rests on the balcony below after collapsing at the Library Gardens apartment complex in Berkeley, Calif., early Tuesday. Berkeley police say several people are dead and others injured after the balcony fell shortly before 1 a.m., near the University of California, Berkeley. (Associated Press/Noah Berger)

What the New York Times is saying is that it stands by its story.

The newspaper has issued what some are terming an apology over a story on Tuesday’s fourth-floor balcony collapse at the Library Gardens complex in Berkeley, Calif., a tragedy that killed six people — five were Irish and one held dual Irish-American citizenship. Titled “Deaths of Irish Students in Berkeley Balcony Collapse Cast Pall on Program,” the story profiled the work-visa program under which Irish 20-somethings flock to the United States for the summer to work and party.

From the story: “But the work-visa program that allowed for the exchanges has in recent years become not just a source of aspiration, but also a source of embarrassment for Ireland, marked by a series of high-profile episodes involving drunken partying and the wrecking of apartments in places like San Francisco and Santa Barbara,” notes the article, which was written by Adam Nagourney, Mitch Smith and Quentin Hardy. To cite an example of such activity, the story linked to a column deploring “the callous destruction unleashed by these loaded Irish students” on a San Francisco house.

The story also — and this is important — highlighted the good side of the work-visa program:

Fiona McGoran can still recall the sense of freedom she felt when she landed in New York in 1994. “There was six of us in a one-bedroom apartment in the West Village,” Ms. McGoran said. “It was the best summer of my life — I dreamed of it for a year afterward.”

Balance notwithstanding, the Irish Examiner cited a “national outrage” over the New York Times piece, spearheaded by Equality Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, who said, “We have six people dead because a balcony collapsed — no other reason. … The nature and tone of the article is a disgrace. I think it would be the right thing to do to withdraw that report and apologise.”

The New York Times registered the criticism and responded with these words:

It was intended to explain in greater detail why these young Irish students were in the U.S. We understand and agree that some of the language in the piece could be interpreted as insensitive, particularly in such close proximity to this tragedy. It was never our intention to blame the victims and we apologize if the piece left that impression. We will continue to cover this story and report on the young people who lost their lives.

As the legions of accredited Apology Experts on social media will attest, that is not an apology. The question is whether it should be. Nagourney tells the Erik Wemple Blog via e-mail that “[t]here are obviously positive aspects to the program, which has been a great resource for thousands of young Irish students, as well as negative ones. Looking back, I had the balance wrong; I put too much emphasis on the negative aspects, and they were too high in my story. That did not become clear to me until I got a distraught e-mail from a reader right after the story posted. I made a minor change in the story to try to address that, but it did not go far enough.”

Bold text added to pose a question: How does Nagourney know that he got the balance wrong? Just what is the correct equilibrium between positive and negative on the work-visa program? Asked about that via phone, Nagourney replied, “This was not the day to have hit the negative side of the program that hard.”

That the New York Times and Nagourney have responded with sincerity and sympathy to the backlash speaks well to the enterprise. Journalists need to be mindful of how their work impacts people. Yet the duty to inform always takes precedence; by no means should the newspaper heed Ó Ríordáin’s retraction request.