There’s Truth Then There’s The New York Times

An absolutely stunning column from Byron Calame, the "Public Editor" at the New York Times. In it he reveals that a very lurid claim made in a New York Times Magazine article from April turns out to be false. The story stated that A few women were serving 30 year jail terms in El Salvador for having abortions. The article gave the example of Carmen Climaco stating dramatically that she had an abortion 18 weeks into her pregnancy then was convicted and sent to prison.

Only the trial records indicate that the baby had been born alive then killed. She was convicted of infanticide, not of having an abortion. The writer never checked the transcripts.

It turns out, however, that trial testimony convinced a court in 2002 that Ms. Climaco’s pregnancy had resulted in a full-term live birth, and that she had strangled the “recently born.” A three-judge panel found her guilty of “aggravated homicide,” a fact the article noted. But without bothering to check the court document containing the panel’s findings and ruling, the article’s author, Jack Hitt, a freelancer, suggested that the “truth” was different.

The issues surrounding the article raise two points worth noting, both beyond another reminder to double-check information that seems especially striking. Articles on topics as sensitive as abortion need an extra level of diligence and scrutiny — “bulletproofing,” in newsroom jargon. And this case illustrates how important it is for top editors to carefully assess the complaints they receive. A response drafted by top editors for the use of the office of the publisher in replying to complaints about the Hitt story asserted that there was “no reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts as reported.”

Read the whole thing, especially the response of one of the assistant editors who defended the article. Calame contacted him after the translated court records became available. His response:

After the English translation of the court ruling became available on Dec. 8, I asked Mr. Marzorati if he continued to have “no reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts” in the article. His e-mail response seemed to ignore the ready availability of the court document containing the findings from the trial before the three-judge panel and its sentencing decision. He referred to it as the “third ruling,” since the trial is the third step in the judicial process.

The article was “as accurate as it could have been at the time it was written,” Mr. Marzorati wrote to me. “I also think that if the author and we editors knew of the contents of that third ruling, we would have qualified what we said about Ms. Climaco. Which is NOT to say that I simply accept the third ruling as ‘true’; El Salvador’s judicial system is terribly politicized.”

Yes, mustn't let the facts get in the way of the fundamental truthiness of the story. Remember this story the next time you read lurid claims in a New York Times story. Because the editors appear to have a culture in place that simply does not care if a story is factually true so long as it fits into their cultural belief system. And they will go to the mat to defend their story even if it contains outright falsehoods.

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