Due Diligence in Delaware

Dear Honest Reporting Member

A few weeks ago, the Associated Press issued a false report about the death of a newborn baby at a checkpoint, and HonestReporting asked readers to check if their local papers also reported AP’s subsequent retraction. HonestReporting member Jack Shattuck of Delaware used the information provided by HonestReporting to write a complaint to his local paper, the Wilmington News Journal.

How did the News-Journal respond? It published a lengthy introspective piece about fair media practices. We commend HonestReporting member Jack Shattuck for being the catalyst for the following column:

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August 5, 2001
by John Sweeney, Public Editor

No matter how much care is taken to make sure the information in a newspaper is as accurate and complete as possible, mistakes slip through. The mistake may be as simple as failing to follow up on a news item that’s 2 inches long.

On July 12 a brief item from the Associated Press reported that a Palestinian woman gave birth to a baby boy, who died. Doctors told the reporter that Israeli soldiers prevented the mother from getting to a medical clinic on time, thereby causing the baby’s death. The soldiers supposedly delayed the woman’s car at a security checkpoint for a long time. The report quoted Israeli spokesmen as saying the claim was unfounded.

Newspapers throughout the United States picked up the story. Some ran the story with a large headline. The News Journal ran it as a tersely written brief, stripping out names and details.

However, a reader noted, The News Journal and other newspapers failed to report the follow-up story. The next day the Associated Press reported that the Palestinian woman’s family denied Israeli soldiers caused or contributed to the baby’s death. According to the woman’s father, the soldiers waved their car through the checkpoint when they were told of the emergency. The baby died later.

The reader, Jack E. Shattuck of Claymont, criticized The News Journal. “After giving prominent coverage to the initial false report, it would be in keeping with appropriate journalistic standards to have given equal coverage to the corrected follow-up report.

“The News Journal”, he added, “gives such limited coverage to international, and for that matter, national news as it is, it should at least screen for any updates in the next few days to correct such distortions as may occur.”

Shattuck is right.

The late historian Barbara Tuchman once warned researchers to be wary of newpaper accounts from troubled or warring nations. “It is absolutely essential”, she wrote, to take nothing from a newspaper without following the story through several days or until it disappears from the news.”

Contemporary readers also could benefit from her caution. In this case, the Associated Press followed up on this story. The News Journal should have followed it too.