New York Times “public editor” Byron Calame has a remarkable story today about a piece that appeared several months ago in the Times Magazine:
The cover story on abortion in El Salvador in The New York Times Magazine on April 9 contained prominent references to an attention-grabbing fact. “A few” women, the first paragraph indicated, were serving 30-year jail terms for having had abortions. That reference included a young woman named Carmen Climaco. The article concluded with a dramatic account of how Ms. Climaco received the sentence after her pregnancy had been aborted after 18 weeks.
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.”
Calame says the response was written by Craig Whitney, the Times’ standards editor, and approved by Gerald Marzorati, editor of the magazine. When Calame got in touch with them about the issue, they said no correction was necessary:
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.”