by Tom Finkel
A woman calling herself Virginia Gillis told what seems like the perfect Easter Sunday tale to St. Louis Post-Dispatch religion reporter Tim Townsend. But for Townsend, the published story quickly turned into a reporter's worst nightmare.
[Editor's note: For an update on this post, point your browser to this more recent STLog entry.]
In Townsend's narrative, Gillis' tale of resurrection provided a fitting segue into a story about the meaning of Easter to Christians.
"Anyone can lose everything in one second," said Gillis. "Anyone can go from spiritual life to spiritual death. But it can be reversed just as quick. I should not have lived through what happened to me, but I was reconstructed -- resurrected, I guess."
Soon after publication, Townsend and his Post-Dispatch editors learned that the woman's story was untrue. In a letter to readers published this past Sunday, editor Arnie Robbins and managing editor Pam Maples detailed what the paper discovered through further reporting, including:
• The woman's name, according to her mother, is Pamala Brown.
• She is 51, not 42.
• She is wanted for violating probation on bad-check writing and forgery charges.
• Law-enforcement officials in Jefferson County can find no record of the purported throat slashing.
"In short," write the editors, "this story did not meet our standards for publication."
Concludes the 600-word retraction:
In our profession there is nothing more important than our credibility, and that is why we have tried to address this situation with you as fully and directly as possible. We hope you will accept our apology.
Maples says she and her fellow editors had "a lot of conversations" about where to run the apology before settling on page two of the paper's front section. "Our standard place to run corrections, consistently for years, has been page two," Maples explains. (A-2 is also where on June 19, 2005, the Post-Dispatch ran a multi-part correction to two investigative stories about Joyce Meyer Ministries. The paper issued an apology along with that correction as well.)
The Post took the additional step of purging the Easter story from its Web site, though the story remains available to those who subscribe to the Nexis news database; readers with Internet connections may still access the story via a "cached" version that survives on the Web.
Maples says the story and the slideshow that accompanied it were taken off STLtoday.com early last week. "We pulled it down early when we realized we had a problem with it, because we didn't want to leave it out there perpetuating anything," she explains. "When we got the first tip, we had a lot of reporting to do. You can tell from the [editor's] note that we did a lot of reporting. We wanted to be sure that we got some answers, or as many answers as we could. We didn't want it sitting out there. We weren't going to get the answers in a day."
Maples notes that STLtoday.com does not keep any articles on its site indefinitely, but she says that was not a factor in the decision to pull this one.
Another daily newspaper that published a lengthy retraction last week, the Los Angeles Times, did not purge the erroneous story, which originally ran on March 17. That article, about alleged new developments in the 1996 murder of rapper Tupac Shakur, remains on the Times' site beneath the paper's apology and retraction.
The L.A. Times' way of presenting a retraction online is the more common course of action, says Joe Strupp, a senior editor who covers newsroom issues at the trade magazine Editor & Publisher. "In practice that I've seen, I think they've tended to keep stories where they can be found with the correction or explanation," says Strupp.
Strupp hastens to add that un-publishing a story as the Post did is a reasonable option. "It's not like they're trying to hide it," he points out. "They made the big correction. If they wanted to hide it, they could act like it didn't happen, or not run a correction at all."
The Times published its retraction under national scrutiny. A March 26 exposé posted at the popular Web site thesmokinggun.com challenged the authenticity of FBI documents that were central to the Times story. Thirteen hours later, according to an account published in the Washington Post, the Times aired its mea culpa. Times reporter Chuck Philips admitted that he had never requested that the FBI authenticate the crucial documents.
The incident at the Post-Dispatch, Maples says, wasn't due to carelessness. "The reporter in this situation is heartsick," she adds.
Maples says the debacle has spurred the Post to heighten its vigilance. "We're reinforcing some things that are already in place," she says, "and reminding everybody: Take care."