Last week, a boldly titled New York Times story by Hilary Stout — “The End of the Best Friend” — appeared on the cover of the Thursday Styles. The story attracted over 300 comments, some very excitable, some very, very excitable, and some blind ragers. Today, New York Times gadfly blog NYTPicker went after it in a post, quoting some of the story’s prominent sources and a strong headline/lede combo: “Did NYT’s Hilary Stout Invent That ‘End Of The Best Friend’ Trend In Styles Section’s Controversial Cover Story?” followed by “It’s beginning to look that way.” The Times won’t talk to the anonymous band of Times-scrutinizers of The NYTPicker by rule, so we decided to follow up on their story, and Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty put us in touch with Stout.
The premise of the NYTPicker accusation stems from three contentions:
1. Christine Laycob says “Stout got her position wrong.” Laycob is the director of counseling at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School in St. Louis. The NYTPicker characterized Laycob as the story’s “lead expert.” They contend with quotes from Laycob that her quotes were mis-contextualized:
Laycob says Stout “used two unrelated quotes … to come across as if I advocated against the concept of best friends in middle school and high school.” That’s a view she denies holding. “Only a small portion of my comments were actually used in the article,” Laycob says, “and they were used by Ms. Stout specifically to create the slant and argument Ms. Stout desired.”
2. Robin Shreeves says she’s “blown away.” Robin Shreeves is the mother used in the piece’s lede. NYTPicker quotes her blog where Shreeves herself notes:
I was blown away at the turn the article takes. I’d be curious to know if Hilary Stout, the writer, ended up writing a very different piece than she intended to.
3. Brett Laursen says she was told the story was about “schools that discouraged friendships,” which is different than what the story started out as:
“I was told from the outset that the premise of the story involved schools that discouraged friendships,” Laursen told The NYTPicker. “I asked and was alllowed to see my quote before it was published. I have no quarrels with the way my views were solicited or represented.” Laycob apparently wasn’t given the same opportunity to review her quotes.
We spoke with Stout about the accusations leveled against her by the NYTPicker.
Is Christine Laycob’s quote accurate? Why is it being disputed?
That quote is 100 percent accurate. It was not two unrelated quotes. There was perhaps a sentence between the two quotes. All I can say is that I’m very confident of my notes from the situation. It was all in one response, and it was the answer to the first question in the interview.
And what was that question?
Do kids still have best friends? I thought it was an interested, nuanced question, and I set out to look at it. I was not saying ‘Do you encourage?/Do you discourage best friends?’ Many educators noted how best friends could be problematic. I set out to look into best friends and see if kids still have best friends. I did this months ago. It’s a big, open-ended question. My first question to (Laycob) was that. It was not a story about guidance counselors.
How did you find your “expert,” Laycob?
I object to the word “expert,” I was quoting someone who was working in the trenches. I found her by calling the National Association of Independent Schools. I spoke to the press person there, [and] said I was working on a story about children’s friendships. She offered to send out an email to member schools. My email went out with the questions on it. I received the notes back from Christine Laycob. You’ll see that she volunteered (following this inquiry).
And what about Robin Shreeves?
I was blown away by her being blown away. I meticulously fact-checked things with her. I have not heard from her (or Laycob) since the story ran.
And Brett Laursen: Why had the story changed when it got there?
By the time I questioned Larson, the premise of the story had indeed changed. I started reporting this story in January, I sought to answer the question “Do kids still have best friends?” that seem to characterize the experiences of past generations. There’re reasons to think they didn’t. I spoke to many, many people. Dozens. I realized I could not prove one way or the other whether kids do or don’t have best friends. That story morphed into two different stories. One was about how technology changes or doesn’t change kids’ friendships. The other one became this, that seeks to pose the ‘Do kids have best friends?’ question. I think there’s enough in there and enough in my notebook to know that it was a legitimate question that people were raising. By the time I reached Larson, I was reporting that story. But I don’t see how the two are so radically different: Do kids have best friends? and Should a kid have a best friend?
I think one implies a thesis and the other implies a question.
It wasn’t saying kids shouldn’t, it was saying ‘should they?’ Some people encourage it. Others don’t. But as far as when you have a person who says they misquoted you, all I can do is stand by my notes. And I question whether she really questions if I misquoted what she said. Why has she not comaplined to the Times or me? I emailed her the day before the story ran that the story is running at long last and she emailed be back ‘Great, I look forward to reading it.’
So what was the question that Lacob says you got wrong?
Her response to me was the answer to the question “Do kids still tend to have best friends?” That quote was entirely representative of the entire conversation.
Stout continued to stress that she’d talked to “many, many people” over the course of this piece. And a few more things:
1. Stout’s piece did indeed appear to morph from one story into two. The other piece was this one, indeed, on kids and technology.
2. NYTPicker curiously brings up the timeline as questionable. “Laycob says that Stout interviewed her for 30 minutes last February (curiously, four months before the story appeared).” Don’t they remember that time Trip Gabriel left the styles section to be replaced by new editor Stuart Emmerich? And don’t they already know that when one editor replaces another, longstanding freelance pieces can sometimes get caught in limbo? Because this is how it basically works everywhere. That seems like an unnecessary aside to throw in there, no?
3. Robin Shreeves was “blown away.” In a good way. Shreeves’ quote in The NYTPicker makes it seem like she was surprised by what Stout wrote. That’s not really the case:
I was interviewed quite a few months ago for a piece that just came out in The New York Times. The writer wanted to find out if children still had traditional best friends, and what she ended up uncovering, I think, is quite controversial. It seems many schools are actively discouraging, in fact purposely separating, best friends.
The piece is called A Best Friend, You Must Be Kidding, and although I think the writer used my information nicely to introduce her subject, I was blown away at the turn the article takes. I’d be curious to know if Hilary Stout, the writer, ended up writing a very different piece than she intended to.
And yes, sometimes, pieces evolve when you’re writing them. It happens, and Stout noted that this was, in fact, the case.
4. Stout’s emails prove her initial inquiry for sources was based on the question:
Do kids these days tend to pair up into “best friends” or are they are encouraged to be more inclusive and have many friends?
I’ve pasted the email from Stout below, but let’s make one thing clear: None of these people called Stout with complaints before NYTPicker reached out to them. They could have. And if you’re only one of two sources in a story being quoted on a controversial position you weren’t entirely ready to back, sometimes, sources backpedal. It happens. Especially when given a little heat. And The NYTPicker has made it their job — for better or for worse, and, more often than not, better — to suss out the truth behind every NYT story they find fault with. In this case, it looks like they’re wrong, and there’s even less of a story behind the story than there is behind any trend piece — most of which are inherently “made up” anyway — to begin with.
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Christine Laycob
Date: Thu, Jan 21, 2010 at 3:18 PM
Subject: Fwd: NYT on kids’ friendships
To: Hillary Stout
I received the email below regarding your inquiry on kids and friendships. I would be happy to talk to you about these issues. To give you some background on me, I am the Director of Counseling and Middle School Counselor at Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School (MICDS). We are a JK-12 co-ed independent school in Saint
Louis, Missouri. As director of counseling I coordinate the counseling supports at the school JK-12 and as middle school counselor work daily with students in grades five through eight (ages 10-14) on many of the topics you have addressed below.
Please let me know if you would like to discuss these issues with me. Feel free to email or call [redacted] (my direct line) so we can find a convenient time to speak.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Christine P. Laycob, M.S., LPC
Director of Counseling
Middle School Counselor
Journalist Hilary Stout is working on a story about children’s friendships for the New York Times and she needs your help. She’s looking for educators (teachers, administrators, psychologists) who can speak about whether children’s friendships are changing. Do kids these days tend to pair up into “best friends” or are they are encouraged to be more inclusive and have many friends? Have technology or demanding schedules changed the nature of kids’ relationships with one another?
Have changing dynamics of children’s friendships encouraged your school to change its policies? For instance, have you instituted programs or policies to combat cliques or to encourage relationship building?
If you’d like to comment, please get in touch with Hilary by Friday afternoon (January 22): [redacted] or [redacted]. If you e-mail, please remember to include your school’s name and location and a telephone number where she can reach you along with your comment.
Myra A. McGovern
Director of Public Information
National Association of Independent Schools