Wednesday, January 15, 2020

UPDATED: A New York Times reporter with a conflict of interest misunderstands the impact of a child abuse tragedy


New York Times reporter Emily Palmer has been covering the trial of the man who tortured and ultimately killed six-year-old Zymere Perkins in New York City in 2016.  She wrote a story which was published a short time ago, after the man was convicted.  But she’s been editorializing about the case on Twitter as she’s been covering it.

Because of that, and because of a conflict-of-interest issue, yesterday NCCPR appealed to New York Times Metro Editor Clifford Levy to intervene.  Perhaps he did. The story is not as bad as the tweets.  But it still allows the city’s claims that its response to the tragedy improved the system to go unrebutted.

In fact, many advocates argue that the city’s response has made the system worse, and made another tragedy like the death of Zymere Perkins more likely.  That’s partly because the overwhelming majority of cases seen by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services don’t involve torture and murder – far more often they involve the confusion of poverty with neglect, as the Times itself has documented well in recent years.

The story is not just harmful to the city’s most vulnerable children. It’s also an insult to Palmer’s colleagues at the Times who have done careful, finely-nuanced reporting like this  on child welfare in recent years.  I hope this story is not a signal by Levy that he is moving Times coverage of child welfare backwards.

Here is the email NCCPR sent to Levy yesterday:

Your forthcoming story on the Zymere Perkins case trial

Dear Mr. Levy:

            This morning one of your reporters, Emily Palmer, posted this tweet about a story she will be writing concerning the trial in the death of Zymere Perkins:

This a.m. the judge is instructing the jury on the law ahead of deliberations in a child abuse and death case. The case of Zymere Perkins, a 6-year-old who died in Harlem in 2016, did much to improve the city’s child welfare system. Story coming soon!  [Emphasis added.]

As I said in a tweet thread about this, I know Ms. Palmer has a deep and abiding passion for protecting children and I admire that.  But I, and other family advocates, also believe that passion has led to some serious misjudgments, most notably in her recent package of stories as a Boston Globe Spotlight Fellow.  Those stories, of course, are not your concern.  But similar problems appear to affect her approach to the trial in the Perkins case.  There is also a matter of conflict-of-interest which I’ll get to below.

            There are advocacy groups and scholars all over New York City who believe the Perkins case made New York City child welfare worse.  We believe it undermined reforms that were making children safer, set off a foster-care panic – a sharp sudden spike in needless removals of children from their homes – and vastly increased needless surveillance of impoverished families of color.  Indeed, the response to the Perkins case worsened the very problems documented so well by the Times in its story about foster care as the new “Jane Crow.”

            My point here is not to try to convince you that we are right and those who say the Perkins case made the system better are wrong (though I would greatly appreciate the chance to try in the future at the time and place of your choosing).  At this point, I am asking simply that a story written by a reporter who’s already taken a clear editorial stand both in today’s tweet and earlier receive extra editing to ensure that well-informed viewpoints from all perspectives are well-represented. 

            For the record, in response to my tweets about this, Ms. Palmer said that she was “alluding to data-oriented improvements.”  Frankly, I’m not sure what she means by this, but I do know that there are serious questions about whether ACS has been misleading in its use of data. I discuss some of those issues here More generally, there is documentation for our concerns about the system getting worse here and here.
            But second, Ms. Palmer has editorialized about this trial before.  In another tweet, she records a video about this case in which she declares at the end that “there is one man on trial, but there’s an entire agency at fault.”

            Really? Every single caseworker? Every supervisor? Every manager?  This is exactly the kind of rhetoric that makes everyone in the system run scared and rush to take away more children needlessly, doing those children enormous harm – and overloading the system making it even less likely that the next Zymere Perkins will be found.  An editorial writer or a columnist is free to do this, of course. Although I realize there have been vast changes in the industry since I was a reporter, I thought the news side was still supposed to refrain from this, even on Twitter.

            So now we have a reporter about to write a news story concerning a trial about which she’s taken a clear editorial position.  These concerns are reinforced by the fact that, even as she covered child welfare as a Boston Globe Spotlight Fellow she also moderated a panel discussion and wrote a fact sheet for Children’s Rights, an advocacy group that is active concerning these same issues.  In fact, in the past, they’ve sued the Administration for Children’s Services and its various predecessor agencies.

            When I tweeted about this, Ms. Palmer replied:

 Re the fact-sheet: I led a panel discussion that brought together a diverse group of voices on all sides. Parent advocacy groups attended and asked excellent questions.

            In response I tweeted this:

(1/2) I saw a tape of that discussion. All sides were *not* represented. Family defenders were in the audience; they literally did not have a place at the table. But more important, you did this for an advocacy group.

[2/2] Would it be OK to moderate a panel and do a factsheet for the NRA *or* for Everytown for Gun Safety and also cover gun control?

            I would add one thing more. This link goes to a flyer about the panel Ms. Palmer moderated. Take a look at who is on the panel, and, especially who is not: Separately, on its website, Children’s Rights has this link inviting readers to Download this fact sheet on Opioids and Foster Care, produced by reporter Emily Palmer. 

            I am sure Ms. Palmer is sincere when she said this group represented “all sides.”  And that’s precisely the problem with the way she has approached child welfare reporting. Who is missing? The Bronx Defenders, Brooklyn Defender Services, Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem, the Center for Family Representation, the writers from Rise, the magazine written by parents who’ve “caught a case” and so on.  Of course they didn’t all need to be on the panel – but surely if you want to present all sides you’d fit in one of them. 

            Thank you for your attention to this matter.

What does the Times Code of Ethics say about all this?

 As noted above, New York Times reporter Emily Palmer, who covers child welfare, moderated a panel discussion arranged and sponsored by the group that calls itself “Children’s Rights.” That group works hard to influence public policy on child welfare issues.  It also regularly sues child welfare agencies across the country.  Ms. Palmer also wrote a “Fact Sheet” for Children’s Rights, linked to the event.

Here are the relevant sections of the New York Times Code of Ethics:

The Times freely acknowledges that outside appearances can enhance the reputation of its bylines and serve the paper’s interests. Nevertheless, no staff member may appear before an outside group if the appearance could reasonably create an actual or apparent conflict of interest or undermine public trust in the paper’s impartiality. …
Staff members should be especially sensitive to the appearance of partiality when they address groups that might figure in coverage they provide, edit, package or supervise, especially if the setting might suggest a close relationship to the sponsoring group. Before accepting such an invitation, a staff member must consult with the standards editor or the deputy editorial page editor. Generally, a reporter recently returned from the Middle East might comfortably address a suburban synagogue or mosque but should not appear before a group that lobbies for Israel or the Arab states. A reporter who writes about the environment could appropriately speak to a garden club but not to conservation groups known for their efforts to influence public policy. ...
Staff members may not collaborate in ventures involving individuals or organizations that figure or are likely to figure in coverage they provide, edit, package or supervise. Among other things, this prohibition applies to collaborating in writing books, pamphlets, reports, scripts, scores or any other material and in making photographs or creating artwork of any sort.

And for those wondering about the references to Ms. Palmer’s work as a Spotlight Fellow: Here's our full response to those stories.