Vigilance Pays off: New York Times Corrects 'Massacre' to 'Genocide'

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by Harut Sassounian
April, 2007

The New York Times published a news article written by Sebnem Arsu of Istanbul and Brian Knowlton of Washington on March 30 with the following headline: "Planned House Vote on Armenian Massacre Angers Turks." In the article, however, the term genocide was used instead of massacre to refer to the planned mass killings of Armenians in 1915.

The reference to the Armenian Genocide as a massacre in the headline was a clear violation of the newspaper's editorial guideline on this subject.

Several individuals immediately sent letters to the New York Times complaining about this deviation from policy.

Businessman Dan Magarian of Cincinnati, Ohio, sent several letters to NY Times executives on March 30, asking for "a proper and full correction."

Attorney Steven Sarfatti of Washington, DC also wrote to the NYT stating that "massacre" was "woefully inaccurate as a matter of demonstrated historical fact. Your staff and editors have disappointed the readership. A prompt correction is indicated."

Janice Kamenir-Reznik, the President of Jewish World Watch, sent a letter on April 1 to the NYT blaming the newspaper for choosing "to equivocate on the fact that the Armenian people was the target and victim of genocide. To fall into the trap so neatly laid by the Turks, by calling the genocide a massacre, is immoral and smacks of pandering to the Turks. It is time that Turkey ownup to its past, just as Germany has owned up to its past. And, for sure, the New York Times should not fall into this trap again."

Doris V. Cross on behalf of Media Watch Armenia sent a lengthy letter to the NYT on April 3, questioning not only the headline but also the content of the article which devoted an "inordinate amount of space" to the opposition of the U.S. Departments of State and Defense and the Turkish government to the proposed congressional resolution on the Armenian Genocide.

Kathy Rose, an assistant editor at the Foreign Desk of the New York Times, sent the following reply to Dan Magarian on March 30: "We do not think that the story violates our policy. It clearly calls the killings a genocide, and its language was reviewed very carefully before publication. The use of the word massacre in the headline in no way contradicts the policy, nor suggests that the killings were not a genocide. We do understand your concern, but in this case, see no inconsistency with Times policy on the subject."

Magarian responded to Kathy Rose telling her: "Your editorial review should have been more sensitive to which term was used in the headline. In point of fact, many deniers of the Armenian Genocide prefer to use terms such as massacre or mass killings."

Magarian then sent a third letter to Ms. Rose challenging the newspaper's use of the term "massacre" in the headline, and maintaining that this was a violation of the New York Times editorial policy. He once again asked that the NYT "officially and properly apologize for this gross error and print a suitable correction."

After several days of silence, the NYT published the following correction in its April 5, 2007 edition: "A headline on Friday [March 30] about a planned vote in Congress over the widespread killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Turkish government early in the 20th century incorrectly described the killings, in which 1.5 million Armenians died. It was genocide, not a 'massacre.'"

This was a welcome but unexpected development as Ms. Rose had insisted justa week earlier that the use of the term massacre, instead of genocide, in the headline of the March 30 NYT article, had not violated the newspaper's policy.

Seeking an explanation for this change in heart, this writer contacted the editors of the NYT. Here is the reply of Craig R. Whitney, the Standards Editor of the NYT: "Dear Mr. Sassounian: I can explain what happened. Kathy Rose came to me, explained how she had answered complaints about the 'Massacre' reference in the headline, and asked me for my advice. I essentially overruled her, and she accepted that with grace. Had the headline been 'Massacres,' it might have been consistent with her explanation that the article made clear that it was about the Armenian genocide during the Ottoman Empire, but I felt that 'Massacre' muddied the facts and that we should bend over backward to correct the apparent misrepresentation of fact. So we ran the correction."

In a follow-up e-mail, this writer pointed out to Mr. Whitney that the use of "massacres" would have been just as wrong as "massacre." Mr. Whitney wrote back saying he agreed, "the headline should have said 'Genocide.'"

This is a satisfactory conclusion to an unfortunate error by the NYT. Special appreciation should be expressed to all those who took the initiative to pursue this matter until a proper correction was published and the record was set straight. The editors of the NYT should also be thanked for graciously acknowledging their mistake. Hopefully, it won't happen again, but readers should remain vigilant nonetheless.