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When Opinion Is News, What Are the Requirements?

By Sarah Lorge Butler

My initial reaction to the Mary Cain video—as a runner, a mother, a human—was shock. Cain endured some terrible treatment, and she is brave to have spoken out. 

When I watch it as a journalist, I’m perplexed. Why wasn’t the piece in the sports section, with a thorough investigation of all the parts of the story and corroborating accounts from various witnesses? Why wasn’t it a news story? 

Instead, the piece is part of an “Opinion video series.” As an opinion, it does not have a full accounting of the facts of Cain’s allegations. It omits a lot: who saw her cutting herself, where and when she sustained broken bones, which high school and junior records she set. The piece just says she set national records. The video’s final panel reads, “In an email, Alberto Salazar denied many of Mary Cain’s claims, and said he had supported her health and welfare.”

What claims specifically did Salazar deny? Many of them? Does that mean he agreed with some of them? If so, which ones? 

This much is certain: Even though the video is labeled “opinion,” it is news in the running world. So what are the journalistic standards when a piece is both opinion and news? 

The questions only multiplied with Nike’s statement that Cain had tried to rejoin the NOP in April. Did the Times know this when they published the video? If so, why did they leave that piece of information out? Including it would not have lessened the power of Cain’s allegations. 

On Twitter, runners past and present were speaking out in support of Cain and backing up her accounts. Typically those sorts of comments would be quoted in a news article; they wouldn’t turn up on social media later. 

Are running issues relegated to opinion, because the sports pages are full with news from the Giants, Jets, Knicks, and Nets? Entirely possible. I’d love to know more. But in a strange twist, the Times did cover Cain’s allegations in a news article on Friday. So the sports department reported on a piece its own opinion pages produced. Why doesn’t sports just cut out the middle step and hire Lindsay Crouse, who produced the video, as a sports reporter? 

This may seem to be missing the point. Mary Cain was treated badly; that much seems certain. But her claims could have been more credible with a full investigation behind them. 

The Times provides on a daily basis examples of how to thoroughly report on controversial topics in news, which makes this all the more confusing.  

I recently listened to a podcast with the two Times reporters, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who won a Pulitzer Prize for their work in breaking the Harvey Weinstein story. They were on Fresh Air with Terry Gross on September 10 in a segment called ”Behind the Scenes of the Weinstein Investigation.” 

In the final question of the podcast (at 39:00), Gross says, “Between the two of you, you’ve reported on so many sexual harassment and sexual assault stories, including Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, Jeffrey Epstein. But one of the things you don’t like is the catch phrase, ‘Believe women.’ I want you to explain why.” 

Kantor replies, “Actually, the spirit of that imperative is one of our lodestars. Megan and I have devoted our careers, separately and now together, to documenting women’s stories and putting them into the paper. So we do in many ways want to live and work in the spirit of that statement. 

“But there’s a conflicting impetus in journalism which is that everything needs to be scrutinized, everything needs to be checked. We believe the really solid, well-documented reporting protects women. So we have found that in our work, and we’re only speaking for ourselves and the kind of work we do, the best way to get people to believe women is to document those women’s stories really thoroughly.”

I believe Mary Cain. I don’t know if everyone will. Maybe a thorough investigation would have convinced more people.  

2 thoughts on “When Opinion Is News, What Are the Requirements?

  1. I, too, scratched my head when I saw Mary Cain’s story put out as an “Opinion” piece by the New York Times instead of as a sports section story. However, the devastating narrative soon washed this thought out of my head until reading Sarah Lorge Butler’s comments which I think are right on the mark.

  2. Really appreciate this piece and agree. Well investigated and documented facts speak for themselves so why not let them – yes, this problem is rampant and horrific but change needs to preach and reach beyond the choir > let hard hitting facts deliver the resounding blow no one can ignore.

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