The Public Editor Gets Tough on Bad Marriage Story

In "Can a 15-Year-Old Be a 'Woman Without a Spouse'?" Public Editor Barney Calame tackled the Times' severely flawed marriage story by Sam Roberts, "51% of Women Are Now Living Without Spouse."

The story was plucked from the Times' front page and uncritically relayed by other newspaper and television outlets as an emerging trend. But critics quickly tore it apart, accusing the Times of sensationalizing and exaggerating the trend of women liberated from husbands by interviewing only happy divorcees and also by using statistical sleight of hand - counting both widows and 15-year-old teens (who no one wants or expects to be married) as "women without husbands."

Calame agrees, and in his Sunday Week in Review column he took on his paper pretty hard.

"The opening paragraph of the article sounded like grown-up stuff: 'For what experts say is probably the first time, more American women are living without a husband than with one, according to a New York Times analysis of census results.'

"It was a statistic that put the story on a fast track to the front page, providing a noteworthy benchmark for a well-established trend. But the new majority materialized only because The Times chose to use survey data that counted, as spouseless women, teenagers 15 through 17 - almost 90 percent of whom were living with their parents."

Apparently most of the complainers were conservatives.

"Several readers, including some who perceived the article as an attack on family values, challenged the inclusion of 15-year-olds, in e-mails to me and in comments posted on the Web version of The Times. 'The article is a little deceiving because it is based on the percentage of women 15 and older who are not married,' wrote one reader, noting that 'it's not even legal to marry at 15' in many states. I couldn't agree more.

"The failure to prominently and clearly explain the methodology of the survey used was one of several journalistic lapses that I found in the handling of this story."

Calame hints that the Times, for all its journalistic cachet, can be just as susceptible to hype as its tabloid rivals, the New York Post and New York Daily News: "The eye-catching assertion that more women in America were living without a husband than with one obviously vaulted this article to Page One. 'It is true that the 51 percent benchmark probably lifted this story onto the front page,' Jack Kadden, a deputy national editor who oversaw its preparation, wrote in an e-mail. 'It is certainly what caught our attention.'

"It was discouraging to find yet another article with an unusual angle that didn't seem to encounter many skeptical editors as it made its way to the front page."

Calame concluded his surprisingly tough critique by questioning the news judgment of both the reporter and the editors who put the severely flawed story on the front page. "Readers deserved this kind of more tempered perspective back on Jan. 16 - and a more tempered story, displayed on an inside page."