Accuracy in Media

On Friday April 15, the Boston Globe retracted an article about the opening day of Canada’s seal hunt, written by Halifax-based freelancer Barbara Stewart. Stewart did not attend the hunt, but wrote as though she was there witnessing it. That would’ve been fine if Stewart had been cast as a precognitive in Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” film but she was in fact supposed to be playing the part of a real news reporter. The Globe has since terminated its relationship with Stewart, saying her fabrications were a violation of the Globe’s ethics, but comments made since then raise questions of whether the Globe knew prior to publication that Stewart did not witness the hunt.

Stewart wrote of “hunters on about 300 boats converged on ice floes, shooting harp seal cubs by the hundreds, as the ice and water turned red.” The Globe published the article on Wednesday, April 13, not knowing the hunt had been delayed until Friday. It was, in fact, the second delay due to bad weather.

The Globe reacted quickly and published a retraction on Friday, stating in part: “The article included details of the day’s hunt as if it had taken place and without attribution or other sourcing, as if the writer had witnessed the scene personally.” The note also indicated “Details included the number of hunters, a description of the scene, and the approximate age of the cubs. The author’s failure to accurately report the status of the hunt and her fabrication of details at the scene are clear violations of the Globe’s journalistic standards.”

The freelancer clung to the defense that it was a mistake due simply to “carelessness.” Stewart told Canada’s CBC: “This was really dumb on my part. It was really dumb.” The CBC reported that “Stewart says she forgot to advise her editors that they should confirm that the hunt had actually opened. She was traveling when the hunt was postponed because of bad weather. “I was very sorry for this mistake ? [but] I had no intention of being dishonest here,” said Stewart.

Stewart said her story was based on an interview she conducted in advance with Ben Foley of the Canadian Sealers Association. Then, in a strange comment, Stewart says, “I wrote it out as if it was happening. And then, out of carelessness, did not put in the obvious thing: ‘Check, double check,'” she says. It’s not clear what Stewart means by “put in the obvious thing” and how a “check, double check” relates to writing a story as though she were an eyewitness, when she wasn’t.

Stewart also suggested the Globe was to blame in part, since she filed the story with a Halifax dateline, whereas the hunt was scheduled for the Northeast coast of Newfoundland. “The Boston Globe knew I wasn’t there ? I did not pretend to be there,” Stewart insisted.  Part of the Globe editorial note seems to corroborate that, although the language is a bit vague: “Because the freelancer was not reporting from the scene, Globe editors should have demanded attribution for any details she provided about the hunt itself.” Did Globe editors know all along that Stewart had submitted a “dramatic reenactment” of the alleged hunt? Or did they believe she attended the hunt, and then filed the story from Halifax? There’s a big difference. In one case it’s the reporter perpetrating a fraud, in the other it’s both the reporter and the newspaper.

Globe Foreign Editor James Smith told Reuters that the newspaper knew Stewart was not at the seal hunt and was doing her reporting from Halifax. “What she told us-and we did check during the day-was that she had confirmed with one of the fishermen in the story that it was going ahead,” Smith said. Reuters said Smith also added that in retrospect the paper should have worked harder to clarify this. “The point is, never assume,” he said. Never assume the event your reporter was pretending to be attending actually went ahead as planned?

That comment leaves one with the impression that the Globe knew before publication that the reporter was not present at the hunt, but the paper simply erred because they didn’t check to make sure the hunt happened before they ran the story.

“We should have noticed the lack of attribution on a couple of key facts and should have asked questions we didn’t ask,” Executive Editor Helen Donovan said. “We should have been alert to the fact that something was missing. … It’s definitely a significant breach.”

Something missing? How about a Newfoundland dateline? Or the hunt itself? Or clarity in the editorial response.

The Globe terminated its relationship with Stewart, who from 1994 to 2004 was a metro reporter for the New York Times. Prior to that she was a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel.

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