Haiti ‘Ransom’ Project: Reactions and Updates

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The New York Times’s multipart series on Haiti, “The Ransom,” has rekindled a debate over how comprehensively journalists should credit the experts they speak to during the course of reporting — and how extensively they should acknowledge the work on the subject that has been done in the past.

The Times series, on the suffocating debts that France and later the United States imposed on Haiti after its independence, built on more than a century of scholarship. Many historians, economists and others who have studied these issues were quoted directly in the articles. Many more were cited in a 5,000-word companion list that The Times published on the original documents it relied on, along with dozens of the books, articles and other writings by historians, economists and others that The Times drew from in the course of reporting.

The Times noted the new findings it added to the historical discussion, including what historians said was the first systematic calculation of what Haiti paid its former slave masters for generations — and how much that amounted to in lost economic growth over the centuries. The Times also published, and identified the source for, every piece of data it used to make the debt calculation, along with the assessments of the many economists and financial historians who reviewed the data, methodology and conclusions.

The goal was transparency, and to give others tools to continue looking into the issues addressed in the project. But several historians who spoke to The Times during the course of its reporting said they should have been credited for it.

Mary Lewis, a Harvard historian, said on Twitter that she had not been acknowledged despite speaking to a journalist early in the reporting. “I told her about sources, I connected her with my research assistant in France,” who was credited by The Times, she wrote. Some other historians had similar criticisms.

In journalism, reporters often speak to many more sources than can be quoted or referred to by name in an article, in order to gain as much information as possible before writing. In this series, The Times conducted hundreds of interviews on several continents with a broad range of people, including coffee farmers, former ambassadors and political leaders.

Some historians said that more credit could have been paid to past scholarship on the issue. Paul Cohen, the University of Toronto historian, for instance, tweeted that The Times’s conclusion “is spot on, and needs to be communicated forcefully,” and he applauded The Times for spelling out so many of the original documents and acknowledging historians it relied on.

But Mr. Cohen also criticized The Times for not including more of the scholars who have done work on the topic in the past, and said The Times’s archival research was “no more and no less than what all historians do.”

“We are well into the second generation of scholars doing great work on Caribbean, Atlantic and colonial history — including historians working specifically on debt/reparations,” he wrote.

Others welcomed The Times’s decision to publish a list of its sources and to have historians and economists assess its data, methodology and calculations before publication.

“It’s good that the NYT did this, that they consulted scholars, that they workshopped it, and that they offered a bibliography,” tweeted Karin Wulf, a historian at Brown University. “This is all what I would want from journalism working on historical subjects.”

Michael Slackman, The Times’s assistant managing editor for international news, posting on Twitter, acknowledged that Haiti has long been a subject of study for historians. “Our series on Haiti built on more than a century of scholarship. And while we brought new information and data to the historical understanding of events, we are under no illusion that we are the first to tackle this topic.”

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