Last spring, the NYTimes Magazine ran an almost 8,000-word story on abortion in El Salvador. One of the central stories involved a woman who was supposedly jailed after obtaining an abortion at 18-weeks of pregnancy.
Problem was, that wasn’t the situation at all.
She was jailed after being tried and convicted for murdering her full-term newborn baby.
Today, the Times public editor addresses the issue, giving due credit to those who first exposed the, er, inaccuracy.
Complaints about the article began arriving at the paper after an anti-abortion Web site, LifeSiteNews.com, reported on Nov. 27 that the court had found that Ms. Climaco’s pregnancy ended with a full-term live birth. The headline: “New York Times Caught in Abortion-Promoting Whopper — Infanticide Portrayed as Abortion.” Seizing on the misleading presentation of the article’s only example of a 30-year jail sentence for an abortion, the site urged viewers to complain to the publisher and the president of The Times. A few came to me.
The care taken in the reporting and editing of this example didn’t meet the magazine’s normal standards. Although Sarah H. Smith, the magazine’s editorial manager, told me that relevant court documents are “normally” reviewed, Mr. Hitt never checked the 7,600-word ruling in the Climaco case while preparing his story. And Mr. Hitt told me that no editor or fact checker ever asked him if he had checked the court document containing the panel’s decision.
Mr. Hitt said Ms. Climaco had been brought to his attention by the magistrate who decided four years ago that the case warranted a trial, so he had asked the magistrate for the court record. “When she told me that the case had been archived, I accepted that to mean that I would have to rely upon the judge who had been directly involved in the case and who heard the evidence” in the trial stage of the judicial process, Mr. Hitt wrote in an e-mail to me. So he didn’t pursue the document.
But obtaining the public document isn’t difficult. At my request, a stringer for The Times in El Salvador walked into the court building without making any prior arrangements a few days ago, and minutes later had an official copy of the court ruling. It proved to be the same document as the one disseminated by LifeSiteNews.com, which had been translated into English in early December by a translator retained by The Times Magazine’s editors. I’ve since had the stringer review the translation of key paragraphs for me.
Exceptional care must be taken in the reporting process on sensitive articles such as this one to avoid the slightest perception of bias. Paul Tough, the editor on the article, acknowledged in an e-mail to me that in reporting this story, Mr. Hitt used an unpaid translator who has done consulting work for Ipas, an abortion rights advocacy group, for his interviews with Ms. Climaco and D.C. This wasn’t ideal, he said, but the risk posed for sources in this situation required the use of intermediaries “to some degree.”
Ipas used The Times’s account of Ms. Climaco’s sentence to seek donations on its Web site for “identifying lawyers who could appeal her case” and to help the organization “continue critical advocacy work” across Central America. “A gift from you toward our goal of $30,000 will help Carmen and other Central American women who are suffering under extreme abortion laws,” states the Web appeal, which Ipas said it took down after I first contacted the organization on Dec. 14. An Ipas spokeswoman called the appeal “moderately successful.”
The magazine’s failure to check the court ruling was then compounded for me by the handling of reader complaints about the issue. The initial complaints triggered a public defense of the article by two assistant managing editors before the court ruling had even been translated into English or Mr. Hitt had finished checking various sources in El Salvador. After being queried by the office of the publisher about a possible error, Craig Whitney, who is also the paper’s standards editor, drafted a response that was approved by Gerald Marzorati, who is also the editor of the magazine. It was forwarded on Dec. 1 to the office of the publisher, which began sending it to complaining readers.
The response said that while the “fair and dispassionate” story noted Ms. Climaco’s conviction of aggravated homicide, the article “concluded that it was more likely that she had had an illegal abortion.” The response ended by stating, “We have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts as reported in our article, which was not part of any campaign to promote abortion.”
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.”
I asked Mr. Whitney if he intended to suggest that the office of the publisher bring the court’s findings to the attention of those readers who received the “no reason to doubt” response, or that a correction be published. The latest word from the standards editor: “No, I’m not ready to do that, nor to order up a correction or Editors’ Note at this point.”
One thing is clear to me, at this point, about the key example of Carmen Climaco. Accuracy and fairness were not pursued with the vigor Times readers have a right to expect.