Sunday, March 16, 2008

Star Admits Big Error In Reporting

Last weekend, the Star ran a page one story claiming that a jury found against Dr. Gary Thompson and Dr. Michael Turner in failing to identify and report suspected child abuse in a case involving an infant who eventually died from abuse injuries. The jury actually found in favor of both doctors but against Methodist Hospital. The Star has a big apology in today's Sunday edition, with Dennis Ryerson noting he was out of town on a business trip when the error occurred, leaving the blame to Managing Editor Pam Fine, who recently gave notice she was leaving the Star. Ryerson writes:

A week ago a headline at the top of our front page was clear and to the point: "Physicians lose child abuse suit." A secondary headline added that: "Plaintiff awarded $400,000 in case alleging doctors didn't report abuse."

Unfortunately, the main headline, as was the story under it, was as inaccurate as it was clear. A jury held Methodist Hospital responsible for not identifying and reporting suspected abuse of an 11-month-old child who was returned to his mother and later beaten to death by the mother's boyfriend. The jury ruled that the two physicians involved in the case, Dr. Gary Thompson and Dr. Michael Turner, were not liable.

No question, it was a very bad error.

Our news gathering and editing processes include several steps to prevent mistakes. Reporters are expected to check and recheck the information in their stories. Stories go through multiple layers of editing before they are printed.

When we become aware of errors we correct them on Page 2 of our first, or "A," news section. We also append the correction to our archived stories and rewrite those stories to correct the error, to ensure that an error isn't repeated.

Some situations require more action on our part, however, and this was one of them. I was on a business trip the day the error appeared. Managing Editor Pam Fine, when informed of the situation, immediately began gathering information. She concluded that this mistake merited not only a correction but also a follow-up news story for publication in the Sunday Star. She called me with her recommendation that we not only write a correction, an apology and a news story, but also that those items appear at the top of Page One, as did the original story. I concurred.

Pam then spoke with attorneys for the two physicians, informed them of our intentions, and apologized for the error. She later supervised preparation of the story and the Sunday headline, which read: "Jury: Doctors not liable in child abuse suit."

We are continuing to review the incident. Among the issues we are discussing: The jury's verdict wasn't read until 12:40 a.m. Saturday morning, right on our city edition deadline. To what extent did that affect our making the error, and could we have planned better knowing the story was running late? Two reporters, one from dayside and one from nightside, covered the final day of the trial. What role did that play?

The senior editor on our staff who handles metro, state and business reporting shipped me an e-mail last week while I was out of the office and urged me to write about the issue for today's column. Steve Berta spoke for all of us when he wrote, "Getting facts right is the ethic by which we live. . .

"While we take stands on the editorial page and try to provoke thought with our columns, that advocacy is a secondary role; first and foremost we strive to be honest brokers of information. . . . Sometimes we get it wrong, but never is it taken lightly."

Noting the processes we have in place to minimize error, he urged me to remind readers that, "It may not be a perfect system, but we try to correct our errors because we would rather suffer the embarrassment of our mistakes than lose our credibility entirely."

If you see something in The Star that you believe to be an error, please let us know by calling (317) 444-6000.

Thanks for reading The Indianapolis Star.

Is Ryerson sure he wants us to call him every time we believe the Star is in error? Are there enough hours in the day? I'm not sure whether the original story with the error was written by Dan Lee or Tim Evans, both of whom covered the trial. There are two different stories online, one crediting the story to Lee with the other crediting Evans. UPDATE: Jen Wagner says the mistake was made by an unnamed night reporter and not Evans or Lee.

UPDATE (3/18/07): A very angry Dan Lee called me this morning to complain about his name being associated in this blog post with the error in this reporting. He emphatically denied any responsibility for the error and chastised me for speculating on which reporter made the error. The Star carried two separate stories online, one written by Dan Lee and one written by Tim Evans. In his apology to Star readers, Ryerson notes there were two different reporters who contributed to the story but he doesn't name the reporter. He does, however, name the responsible editor, Pam Fine, who previously announced she's leaving the Star. Lee notes that at the end of the story line it mentioned others contributed to the report. Lee would not identify who made the error but said he personally apologized to the attorneys for the doctors for the error. He added that he was unsure which reporter made the error. Within hours of this post going up, I included the update which noted Jen Wagner had advised me that neither Lee nor Evans was responsible for the error. Wagner formerly worked at the Star and presumably still speaks to reporters there. Lee believes it was unfair for me to speculate on who made the error. He believes I should have called up the reporters and asked them directly if they were responsible for the error. He says his role in covering the trial was very limited. More than a week had passed before Ryerson published the Star's apology, which left unanswered the identity of the reporter who made the error. I take responsibility for my own speculating, but Ryerson could have removed any questions by simply identifying the reporter who made the error. He had no problem naming Fine. I think Lee and Evans should direct their frustration at their own boss for not making it clear in his own apology that neither of these two veteran reporters was responsible for the error. For the record, here's the correction note the Star has in its online report with Lee's story:

CORRECTION: A story on Page A1 in some editions Saturday incorrectly reported that a jury found against Dr. Gary Thompson and Dr. Michael Turner in connection with a 1998 child abuse case. The jury actually found in favor of both doctors. The story to the right reports the correct information. The Star apologizes for the error.


Anonymous said...

The STAR is a joke. I, as have many many other, have cancelled subscriptions. This poor excuse for journalism is going down the tubes. Good bye Indianapolis Star.

Anonymous said...

The error was generated by the night cops reporter, not by Tim Evans, who had the original byline. The verdict didn't come in until late, and the cops reporters misunderstood it.

The rest is front-page history.