How many Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists does it take to bungle a trade and environmental story about Kenya and irresponsibly wreak havoc in a country that fears its sovereignty is being threatened? Just one, unfortunately.
But don’t cast all the blame on the reporter in question — save a majority of it for the primary source, “Greenpeace”.
Giving New York Times the benefit of the doubt
Our past experiences with New York Times climate reporter Hiroko Tabuchi have, for the most part, been quite fair.
So, we were surprised and disappointed when she and her editors published a front-page story on Monday falsely alleging that Kenya, a sovereign nation, was on the verge of accepting a trade agreement with the United States that would somehow lead to sweeping changes of its environmental regulations – everything from an existing ban on plastic bags, to limits on imports of “foreign plastic garbage.”
Before dismantling this particular story, it’s important to know that our first instinct is generally to give the New York Times the benefit of the doubt. Their work, like countless news outlets around the globe, is more important today than ever. And judging by Ms. Tabuchi’s previous pieces, she is clearly a talented writer and reporter.
But no one gets it right 100 percent of the time (and that includes industry, humbly stated). Still, literally billions of people around the globe expect the Times to hold itself to a higher standard and ensure its journalists publish work that reflects well on its reputation.
That didn’t happen here.
Listen to the sources that know the issue
The Times appears to have made a bad judgment call in pushing out this story. They followed a lead from a misaligned organization like Greenpeace, and didn’t adequately confer with the sources who actually matter and have a voice and a stake in this debate. Like, say, Kenya.
As Ms. Tabuchi was crafting her story, she emailed ACC and several of its members, along with a few recycling groups, and a plethora of environmental activists in Africa, for comment (more on ACC’s response below).
However, the Times editors apparently slipped up by publishing the story without first receiving a comment from one of the only people in this discussion that really matters – Kenya’s own trade cabinet secretary, Ms. Betty Maina.
It’s not good journalism to publish a story about trade with Kenya without a voice like Ms. Maina’s represented in the story, period. Maybe they sent a courtesy email and didn’t hear back. They should have waited. Instead, the Times took a gamble and ran with the story anyway, assuming they had the facts right. After an initial splash in mainstream media, it backfired.
Following the publication of Ms. Tabuchi’s story (and its companion Unearthed/Greenpeace story published on the same day), Secretary Maina slammed the misreporting in an interview with Victor Amadala with The Star:
“Kenya will not accept any proposal that goes against environmental laws in its trade negotiations with the United States of America.”
The reporter said Ms. Maina “rubbished” NYT’s false claims that a “Free Trade Agreement is centered on a deal that will see US corporations import plastic and chemicals, targeting the African market.”
“No such proposal has been brought to the negotiating table. Claims in the story are neither here nor there. We will negotiate with US-guided by Kenyan laws,’’ Maina told The Star.
In the same vein, ACC’s comments on the agreement specifically suggested including provisions to reduce marine debris, and, contrary to the New York Times story, never even mentioned changes to Kenya’s bag bans or any other single-use plastic policy.
Upholding journalistic standards is a must
The Times should have respected their readers and put their credibility above catering to an organization like Greenpeace, which fed the Times the false information after first contacting ACC (long before the Times eventually followed suit). Instead, the Times saw Secretary Maina completely contradict their story a day later.
Here’s the question – Why would Greenpeace make these false allegations? The organization apparently dropped the ball by not filing public comments of its own on the U.S.-Kenya trade negotiations, or even appearing at the public hearing, like industry did. The comment period was public, transparent and available to anyone.
If Greenpeace cared so much about this issue, why didn’t they utilize every opportunity at their disposal to make their voice heard in the first place like so many other organizations did? Instead, they found themselves caught behind the 8-ball, which, for them, somehow justified a resort to desperate measures.
The Times also could have more accurately reported ACC’s position on the issue, had they actually heeded our detailed feedback before the story published, in which we clearly stated they were mischaracterizing ACC’s position and misrepresenting what a trade agreement can – and cannot – do. ACC ultimately issued a statement to help correct the record after the fact.
Most importantly, the reporters could have saved Kenya from the unnecessary alarm bells over trade negotiations that haven’t even made it past the first round yet due to the global pandemic.
Instead, people are left questioning whether the New York Times should be considered a reliable source on this issue in the future. When that happens, no one comes out on top.