Last week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a cover story on Easter about how it symbolizes rebirth amongst Christians. You can read it via Google cache because it has disappeared from the paper’s Web site. Why?
Well, it seems that the vivid, meaningful anecdote about a woman who symbolizes a modern rebirth–a Christlike figure that the paper could savor–was sort of completely made up. The Post-Dispatch offers a note to its readers:
On the front page of last Sunday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch, we published the story of a woman identified as Virginia Gillis. She was featured in an Easter story in which she described in detail a past of victimization, homelessness and despair followed by recovery and repair.
We have since learned that a number of the details in that story were inaccurate. Further, our verification procedures were not followed during the reporting and editing process. In short, this story did not meet our standards for publication.
We apologize for this journalistic breakdown. We value the trust you place in us every time you pick up the Post-Dispatch or log onto STLtoday.com, and we understand that incidents such as this put that trust at risk.
Last Monday morning, we were contacted by someone who told us that information provided by the woman in the story was inaccurate.
The note goes on to identify all of the facts that were wrong in the anecdote, including the woman’s name and everything she told an enraptured journalist.
Of course, the paper doesn’t really explain missing the theological explanation of Easter, choosing instead to cast Christ and the meaning of Easter as an Adonis figure, ignoring the interpretation that Christ died to cleanse the world of sin, and that Christ’s death means capital punishment is wrong.
Perhaps newspapers should learn to avoid the common template, particularly in policy pieces but also used in this case, that requires a human interest anecdote in the lead position to humanize the sweeping pronouncements and paper-based interpretations that follow and should instead focus on actual reporting. They could shunt these pieces off to the human interest pages or editorial pages where they belong instead of casting them as news. However, that would probably require more effort and less creative writing on the parts of newspaper staffs.
So I don’t expect it. But at least the Post Dispatch acknowledged this systemic failure on its part.
But they’re the ones who will frame the elections this year for a good portion of the St. Louis area, and I don’t look forward to a number of pieces in the middle of April and November saying, “Whoops! Our story presented our agenda, but might have been inaccurate.”