The 1619 Project Fails Traditional Standards of Journalism Ethics

Picture of New York Times newspaper

The New York Times recently assured us that The 1619 Project meets its highest standards of journalism.

But, like much about the series itself, that statement is subject to dispute.

The Times 8/14/19 series on the first black “slaves” to arrive in America in 1619 violates at least two of central tenets of the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists.

ACCURACY

The SPJ code tells journalists to:

 Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it.

Project Editor Nikole Hannah Jones introductory essay stated “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”

Five of America’s most distinguished historians, including two Pulitzer Prize winners, complained in December the statement was “not true.” Moreover, they wrote, “Some of the other material in the project is distorted, including the claim that ‘for the most part,’ black Americans have fought their freedom struggles ‘alone.’ They also complained the series misrepresents President Abraham Lincoln.

NYT Magazine Editor Jake Silverstein on 12/20/19 rejected the historians’ criticism, insisting the statement was correct and grounded in historical record. The NYT refused to write a correction.

A few days later, Gordon S. Wood, a professor emeritus of history at Brown University who spent his career studying the American Revolution, wrote Silverstein:  “I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves. No colonist expressed alarm that the mother country was out to abolish slavery in 1776.”  

In fact, Wood said the opposite is true.

“Far from preserving slavery the North saw the Revolution as an opportunity to abolish the institution. The first anti-slave movements in the history of the world, supported by whites as well as blacks, took place in the northern states in the years immediately following 1776.”

Wood received a 2010 National Humanities Medal from former President Barack Obama in 2011.

Still no correction by the NYT.

Then it came to light that the NYT’s own expert, Leslie M. Harris, an African-American historian at Northwest University, told the NYT in advance of publication that the premise the Revolutionary War was fought in large part to perpetuate slavery was wrong. “Despite my advice,” she said, “the Times published the incorrect statement about the American Revolution anyway.”

The 1619 Project may meet the NYT’s highest standards but it fails abysmally to meet the SPJ’s standard for accuracy.

ACKNOWLEDGE MISTAKES

The SPJ Code of Ethics tells journalists to:

Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.

The NYT has never run a correction on the above errors and others in the series.

Eight months after the series was published, the NYT on March 11 appended an “update” to the series in the form of an editor’s note. It read: “A passage has been adjusted to make clear that a desire to protect slavery was among the motivations of some of the colonists who fought the Revolutionary War, not among the motions of all of them.”  (Note – Prof. Wood knew of no such colonist holding that view and the Times clarification failed to identify any.)

Given the Times refusal to run a correction, it was somewhat shocking when Quillette reported on September 19 that the NYT was quietly altering the published text of the project to eliminate the claim that slavery was a primary reason for the American Revolution.

The series may have met the NYT’s highest standards but it failed abysmally to meet the SPJ’s standard for corrections.

The series also stacks up poorly to the core principles of journalism adopted by the Ethical Journalism Network, which require, among other things, truth and accuracy, fairness and impartiality, and accountability. And the series is found wanting with respect to the International Principles of Professional Ethics in Journalism adopted by UNESCO, which state that people have a right to true information and a journalist must be dedicated to objective reality.

Curriculum

Meanwhile, the Pulitzer Center has been distributing a curriculum of The 1619 Project developed by the NYT to thousands of schools around the country.

The American Revolution Institute in Washington, DC notes: “The 1619 Project curriculum is actually worse than the dishonest and deceptive material on which it is based. A mature adult reader of the 1619 Project may be equipped to apply critical reasoning to its claims—particularly Hannah-Jones’ claim that the purpose of the American Revolution was to perpetuate slavery. We cannot reasonably expect middle school and high school students, to whom we ought to be teaching critical reasoning skills, to bring the same kind of skepticism to their reading of works we assign them.?

Where is the outcry in the journalism community?

In contrast to the courageous historians who have demanded the truth, self-identified media watchdogs and well-paid tenured journalism professors have been silent. Indeed, the problematic introductory essay to the series by Nikole Hannah Jones was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, which is regarded by many to be the hallmark of excellence in the profession.

This silence is an alarming reflection on the American media today, which is almost entirely owned by a handful of multinational corporations and investment groups.

4 thoughts on “The 1619 Project Fails Traditional Standards of Journalism Ethics”

  1. In what world is an employment discrimination lawyer an authority on journalistic ethics? In what world is a question on the historical significance of slavery one that is only explainable with multiple choice options that you have decided.
    Stay in your lane. Your bigotry and ignorance are showing.

    How did you even finish law school?

    1. First, the story is not about the historical significance of slavery. The article is about a major American newspaper that flagrantly disregarded facts and published a false narrative and is now peddling a misinformation campaign to school children around the country. It is about the NYT refusal to be accountable to the public and to follow basic principles of journalism ethics that have been around for many decades.
      About my qualifications, I have worked as a reporter or editor for The Hartford Courant, The New Haven Register, The Connecticut Law Tribune, The American Bar Association Journal, etc. I have received many journalism awards. My work uncovering Connecticut as a major drug trafficking center (between Boston and NY) was submitted for a Pulitzer Prize. Throughout my career I have written about the law for both the public and legal professionals. I also wrote two books for CQ Press on the American court and criminal justice systems, respectively, that are in libraries around the world. I could go on.
      I would have preferred finding a journalism ethics expert to write about the NYT failed 1619 Project but discovered they are uniformly too cowardly to speak up.
      The article you are commenting on is 100% accurate or at least no one has pointed out an inaccuracy. If they do, unlike the NYT, I’ll do a correction.
      Finally, I had the courage to use my own name on this article while you chose not to use yours.

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