A New York Times science and health correspondent whose reporting on the coronavirus pandemic has been a regular part of the newspaper’s front page and its leading podcast, “The Daily,” has been accused of using a racial slur while serving as an expert guide on a Times-sponsored trip for high school students, The Times said on Thursday.
Donald G. McNeil Jr., a 45-year veteran of The Times who has reported from 60 countries, was the subject of complaints by travelers who went to Peru in 2019 as part of Student Journeys, a series featuring experts from the paper’s roster of staff members and contributors.
The Daily Beast reported on Thursday that at least six students or their parents, out of 26 on the trip, had complained about Mr. McNeil’s comments. The Times later confirmed in a statement that Mr. McNeil had used a “racial slur.”
“In 2019, Donald McNeil Jr. participated in a Student Journeys as an expert,” The Times said in the statement. “We subsequently became aware of complaints by some of the students on the trip concerning certain statements Donald had made during the trip.
“We conducted a thorough investigation and disciplined Donald for statements and language that had been inappropriate and inconsistent with our values,” the statement continued. “We found he had used bad judgment by repeating a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language. In addition, we apologized to the students who had participated in the trip.”
The Times would not provide details of how, or when, Mr. McNeil had been disciplined. Mr. McNeil declined to comment. Putney Student Travel, the operator of the 14-day trip, did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
In an email to Times staff on Thursday evening, Dean Baquet, the executive editor, said that when he first heard about the complaints about Mr. McNeil, “I was outraged and expected I would fire him.” After the investigation, however, Mr. Baquet “concluded his remarks were offensive and that he showed extremely poor judgment, but that it did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious.
“I believe that in such cases people should be told they were wrong and given another chance,” Mr. Baquet continued. “He was formally disciplined. He was not given a pass.”
For more than a decade Mr. McNeil has covered infectious diseases. He received the John Chancellor Award last year for lifetime achievement in journalism. His first article on the coronavirus, written with a China correspondent, Sui-Lee Wee, appeared on Jan. 8, 2020. It helped inform American readers who were unaware of the threat posed by a virus that seemed confined to Wuhan, China.
This week, Mr. McNeil wrote an article based on an interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci about his experience leading the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases under President Donald J. Trump. Mr. McNeil discussed the interview on an episode of “The Daily.”