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Why the New York Times downplayed the Panama Papers

On Sunday evening, as news of the Panama Papers first made a splash, New York Times readers logged on to the paper’s website to find, well, very little.

The famed news organization first acknowledged the news with a wire story posted on Sunday afternoon, just as more in-depth reports, coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, were popping up all across the internet. The Times didn’t post its own, staff-authored story until after 9 pm. Even then, the story was posted to the Times website’s world section — with no mention on the homepage.

The story quickly climbed into the Times's top 10 most-read articles, as the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, notes. But in the print edition, it was buried inside the paper, with no mention on the front page — the journalistic equivalent of an intentional snub.

Sullivan asked an editor high up in the Times hierarchy to explain the lack of coverage. Here’s how he responded:

I asked Matt Purdy, a deputy executive editor, to respond. He told me by phone that The Times is very interested in the data leak, and the articles produced from it. But he said Times editors believe that they owe it to their readers to do their own evaluation of the material. And that, he said, is happening now.

Because the Times was not a part of the global consortium and was not aware that the story was coming, it needed some time to get its own story going. "We didn’t know these documents were out there and being worked on," Purdy said.

It’s fair for the Times to say its coverage has been minimal because its reporters didn’t have access to the documents. It’s not as plausible to argue — as the paper seems to be doing — that the lack of access diminished the importance of the story, leading the Times to place it on page A3.

There’s probably a simpler reason for the halfhearted coverage. While outlets across the US were invited to take an advance look at the data leak, including local outlets like the Miami Herald and the Dallas Morning News, the New York Times just wasn’t invited to the party.

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