Updated at 4:35 p.m., EST
A free-lance writer under contract to The New York Times Magazine has been barred from writing future articles for the newspaper after he acknowledged creating a composite character in a story last year.
The author, Michael Finkel, conceded Thursday that he misrepresented the experiences of the title character in a Nov. 18 magazine piece called “Is Youssouf Male a Slave?” But he maintained his report accurately reflected the lives of thousands of West African youths who sell themselves into service on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast.
“Youssouf Male is a real person and I interviewed him, and most of the scenes in that article are based on his experience, but many are based on the experiences of others very much like him,” Finkel told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his home in Bozeman, Mont.
“In order to tell a very complex story in a way that is compelling to read, I made the wrong decision to put together several accounts that were told to me by these young workers and I combined them into one representative voice,” he said.
In an editor’s note in Thursday’s editions, the Times said notes from Finkel’s three weeks of reporting “reveal that contrary to the description of Youssouf Male’s year of work at the plantation, he spent less than a month there before running away.” It continues that “many facts were extrapolated from what he learned was typical of boys on such journeys, and did not apply specifically to any single individual.”
Times editors questioned the veracity of Finkel’s story after the author notified the newspaper Feb. 13 that a photograph he had taken of a boy, published without a caption, was not a picture of Male.
Save the Children, one of two human rights organizations cited in the story as helping the boy return home, had contacted Finkel, saying it had located the boy in the photo and identified him as Madou Traore, the newspaper said.
Further investigation of Finkel’s notes showed that the article’s description of Male’s return home was actually Traore’s experience, the Times said.
Times spokesman Toby Usnik said Finkel — who has written eight other articles for the Sunday magazine — failed to provide a “satisfactory explanation” for what Usnik termed “misrepresentations” and “falsifications.”
While editors had no evidence of any problems with other stories by Finkel, “we remain open to further investigation if we come upon information to the contrary,” Usnik said.
Finkel told the AP that the problems with the Male story were unique. “I’ve never used that (technique) before. I have not used it in my articles since, and I never plan to use it again,” he said.
In its editor’s note, the Times noted that when the magazine’s fact-checkers are unsuccessful in contacting some of a story’s principal sources, as in this case, the magazine “relies heavily on the author’s account.”
Finkel said his other eight articles were “fact-checked scrupulously.”
Finkel, 33, won a Livingston Award for international reporting for a June 2000 Times Magazine piece, “Desperate Passage,” which recounted the story of Haitian emigrants from their perspective.
His work for the magazine included last Sunday’s cover article about a community stranded by war and starvation in Afghanistan. The Times said the magazine was printed before it knew about the problems with the Male story.
Finkel has written one book — Alpine Circus, a compilation of stories about skiing — and has contributed to several magazines over his 12-year career, including National Geographic Adventure, Atlantic Monthly, Sports Illustrated, and Rolling Stone.
National Geographic Adventure has published four pieces by Finkel, said Caryn Davidson, a spokeswoman for the magazine. “We have no questions about our pieces,” she said.