New York Times apologises for ‘insensitive’ language in Berkeley article

Paper criticised after article suggested J-1 students an ‘embarrassment to Ireland’

The New York Times has apologised for an article on the Berkeley balcony tragedy, admitting some of the language used “could be interpreted as insensitive” to the victims’ families.

The publisher’s vice-president of corporate communications Eileen M Murphy said the the article in question “was a second day story” that sought to contextualise the collapse 24 hours after the deaths had taken place.

“It was intended to explain in greater detail why these young Irish students were in the US.

“We understand and agree that some of the language in the piece could be interpreted as insensitive, particularly in such close proximity to this tragedy,” she said in a statement.


“It was never our intention to blame the victims and we apologise if the piece left that impression. We will continue to cover this story and report on the young people who lost their lives.”

In its report of the tragedy, New York Times reporters said the J1 programme had been "not just a source of aspiration, but also a source of embarrassment for Ireland".

They stated that the visa scheme was "marked by a series of high-profile episodes involving drunken partying and the wrecking of apartments in places like San Francisco and Santa Barbara".

Labour Minister of State Aodhán Ó Ríordáin was among those who called on the paper to remove the article from its website and apologise to the families involved. He described the paper's coverage of the collapsed balcony as "completely insensitive and outrageous".

The Irish Ambassador to the US Anne Anderson wrote a letter to the newspaper’s editor saying the article had caused “deep offence”, and also contained “inaccurate” statements about the J-1 programme.

“At this time of searing grief, the messages of condolence and offers of support which are flooding in to the Embassy and our Consulates are balm to the soul. They reflect far more accurately the feelings of the American people than does your article,” she wrote.

The New York Times declined to remove the article online, its public editor Margaret Sullivan said, adding: "It is not the Times's policy to take a published story off its website."

However, she said in a posting on the site, clearly the journalists involved "would write and edit the story differently now".

Ms Sullivan noted her office had “fielded hundreds of complaints” from readers who were “quite understandably” upset about the article.

“The thrust of the story was insensitive, and the reaction to it understandable. An examination of the building’s structure, rather than the behaviour of young people in the J-1 programme, would have been a more appropriate focus for a second-day story.”

A fresh article on the balcony collapse was posted on the New York Times website on Wednesday covering reaction in Dublin to the fatalities.

In the offending article, the paper had referred to a well-publicised incident last September when Irish J-1 students were accused of trashing a student house in San Francisco, causing thousands of dollars worth of damage.

Following the incident, the Irish community offered assistance in repairing the damage.

In 2010, The Irish Times reported that Irish students were unwelcome in Santa Barbara because of material damage to property caused by a small minority of students.

Mr Ó Ríordáin said he was taken aback by the tone of the piece in the New York Times, which he described as a “reasonably reputable newspaper”.

"The focus should be on why this balcony collapsed instead of being sucked into all kinds of stereotypes which are offensive, when you could consider the depth of feeling in Ireland about this tragedy."

The New York Times was trending in Ireland on Twitter following the publication of the piece on its website and in print.

One person tweeted: “The New York Times article is absolutely disgusting, they wouldnt write anything so callous if it happened to Americans on spring break #RIP”.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column