NYTimes Editor Stands by Cohn’s Pieces on Latinos and Whiteness

After receiving a May 22 email about reporting issues surrounding a May 21 New York Times “Upshot” piece by Nate Cohn proclaiming more and more Latinos are becoming this country’s next whites, “Upshot” managing editor David Leonhardt sent the following response to me this morning:

Mr. Varela,

Thanks very much for your e-mails, and I’m sorry it’s taken me awhile to respond. I understand that you have a different interpretation than Nate Cohn’s stories. I remain comfortable with those stories.

It’s very common for the media to report on preliminary findings. We do it when when we report on the employment data each month (which is revised in each of the following two months). We do it when we report on working papers in the social sciences, before they’re published in academic journals. These are just two examples among many.

In this case, as is typical, the first piece reported on the evidence available at the time. The second piece updated the findings based on new information. The larger story remained the same in both.

More broadly, there is evidence for the trend —an apparent increase in Latinos self-identifying as white— well beyond this study. Other researchers have also noted the pattern. In 2011, Gabriel Sanchez, of the University of New Mexico, wrote about “the rise in Latinos who define themselves as white racially.” He continued: “For example, Dr. Harrison was quoted saying ‘some portion [of Latinos] might indeed become, for most social purposes, white’.”

Similarly, as Nate’s second piece explained: “Even after the question change in the 2008 A.C.S., the white share of the Hispanic population steadily increased every survey. In 2012, 65.6 percent of Hispanics identified as white, up from 62.3 percent in 2008.”

If you’re aware of evidence that points in a different direction, please do let me know. We would certainly be interested in it.

Thank you again.

Sincerely,
David

For the record, my original issues with Cohn’s May 21 piece had to do with lack of diverse voices and a media “Latinos Are the New White” obsession. But when I found out that Cohn could have done a better job in reporting his story, I sent this email on May 22 to Leonhardt and eventually resent it five times:

Dear Mr. Leonhardt,

My name is Julio Ricardo Varela. I wrote an opinion piece yesterday for LatinoRebels.com criticizing a post on Upshot called “More Hispanics Declaring Themselves White” by Nate Cohn. Since the publication of my critique, it has come to my attention that Mr. Cohn never contacted the study’s co-authors nor did he have a copy of the any of the study’s findings or presentations, since such a study does not yet exist. The entire NYT post was based on a Pew blog post which the author based on a summary of a presentation she attended. No study was formally made public, thus leading to a serious misinterpretation of the data.The Pew author also did not work from actual materials from the co-authors. I was also told by those close to the session that Mr. Cohn’s did not accurately depict the intent of the study or its preliminary conclusions.

Can you let me know if anyone in the NYT consulted with the study’s co-authors before publishing Mr. Cohn’s piece? Or whether the NYT received the initial study from the co-authors?

I am writing a follow-up news story for LatinoRebels.com and wanted to see if you or anyone else at the NYT can comment on my questions.

Sincerely,
Julio Ricardo Varela

A few hours later, I sent the following email to Leonhardt (and resent this one as well—five times):

Here is the quote LR received from one of the study’s co-authors:

“The New York Times post included two numbers from our study that are correct: 2.5 million and 1.3 million. Our paper does not involve any interpretation of why people are changing and the inferences about that are entirely his. Also, the New York Times post focuses only on one aspect of the paper, rather than the full set of results.

We plan to post a Census Bureau blog with a few more details soon and then the public paper will be coming out in late summer, we expect. We will send you both when they are ready.”

Am wondering if you or anyone at NYT would care to comment for the story. Am on deadline, but let me know? Thank you.

As for evidence and others findings, I had also tweeted out the following pieces, which clearly countered Cohn’s pieces: one by Dr. Hector Codero-Guzmán, one by Dr. Victor Rodríguez and one by Dr. Manuel Pastor. In addition, Blanca E. Vega compiled a comprehensive list of other pieces addressing why Cohn’s original conclusions missed the mark.

Via New York Times

Via New York Times

 

Yesterday, the very same co-authors Cohn referenced but never quoted directly published a Census post that contradicted Cohn’s conclusions and pieces. At one point of that post, the co-authors said this:

We caution readers not to reach conclusions based solely on the preliminary research. We look forward to talking about the final results when the process is complete.

Like I wrote to Leonhardt (I also left a voice mail on his phone), I don’t agree with Cohn’s pieces, but the bigger issue is not about the generalizations: it is about basic reporting. Cohn, Leonhardt and The Times should at least acknowledge that reporting mistakes were made and that there are still several questions to be answered. In a follow-up email to Leonhardt’s response, I wrote this:

Thanks, David, for your response, and I am aware that Nate’s position is different from mine, but my specific questions had to do with the actual reporting of the piece. Did you get those questions (see questions below which I sent)? Again, I know I won’t agree with Nate’s piece, but my specific questions have to do with the news-gathering process of the piece. It is clear that reporting errors were made. I have emails and a quote from the study’s co-authors expressing disappointment that Nate did not give the co-authors a chance to speak about the study with him. Can you answer the following emails, which I sent to you several times? Thanks!

I also tweeted Leonhardt:

Hopefully, Leonhardt can respond one more time. I think he will, because it’s the right thing to do as an editor, even though I had to wait more than three weeks for his first answer. By the way, this is not about being “outraged” or “angry.” This has to do with responsible journalism and understanding that if a mistake is made, at least admit to it, move on and make a better effort in the future when it comes to analyzing identity.

UPDATE, 3:30pmET, Leonhardt sent me the following email response:

Thanks for the follow-up. You’re wrong about the reporting: Nate reached out to the authors twice to ask for their input. They said they were not ready to respond, partly because of Census protocol. I’m sure you can understand that we sometimes choose to publish information even when a government agency is not ready to discuss it publicly. In this case, the information was already in the public domain.

David

My response:

Thanks, David. This is what I got from Liebler [study co-author]:

According to Liebler. I also have a more detailed (yet unpublished) email from Lieber saying that they were extremely disappointed with Nate’s piece. The basic question is this: why didn’t Nate report the fact that he tried to get the authors to comment? And yesterday’s Census post confirms that the initial findings and generalizations about the findings were premature and inaccurate.

“Nate Cohn did reach out to us to talk, but we were not able to talk as quickly as he needed to get his article to press, so it didn’t happen.”

Liebler then added that Cohn had contacted her on May 8 but one of the key principals of the study was sick and the group decided to “not to go forward with interviews about this preliminary research” until that individual was available.

Leonhardt responded to my final email with this:

That’s correct. Nate’s attempts to reach spanned more than a week. On one attempt, the authors cited Census protocol as the reason they didn’t want to talk; on another, they cited an illness. I’m sure both reasons were truthful. You can understand, though, why we would eventually want to write about an issue already in the public domain, even if the Census researchers were not yet ready to be quoted.

***

EDITOR’S NOTE: Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela (@julito77) founded LatinoRebels.com in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. His personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. He pens columns on LR regularly. In the last two years, Julito represented the Rebeldes on CBS’ Face the NationNPR,  Univisionand The New York Times. Recently, he was a digital producer for Al Jazeera America’s The Stream.

, ,