Credibility is in the details

The complainant, Paul Sunstrum, complained that both on air and on its website As It Happens claimed that the bodies of almost 800 children were found in the septic tank of a closed Irish “mother and baby home.” Almost 800 children died at the facility, and some bones were found on the property, but no one knows where they are all buried. As It Happens producers were not careful enough in their use of language, but have since corrected it.

COMPLAINT

In early June, the CBC radio program As It Happens broadcast two interviews about a developing scandal in Ireland relating to “mother and baby homes.” There was evidence that nearly 800 children had died in one of these homes, in Tuam, County Galway, between 1925 and 1961. There were calls for a government inquiry, which is now underway.

As It Happens first interviewed Susan Lohan, Director of the Adoption Rights Alliance, who was familiar with the history of these homes and the treatment of unwed mothers and their children in Ireland. The next night program host Carol Off interviewed an Irish government minister who also represents the people in County Galway. Ciaran Cannon was calling for an inquiry into the revelations of the high mortality rate of the children living in the Tuam home.

There was some confusion in the early reporting about the burial site for the children. And that is what led to your complaint. In August, you wrote to point out that As It Happens reported on June 3 and 4 that the remains of 800 children were found in a septic tank on the grounds of the Tuam orphanage. You asked some questions:

  1. Since no evidence has ever existed of human remains being found in a septic tank, how did As It Happens report, as fact, that the remains of 800 children had been dumped into a septic tank?
  2. Has As It Happens retracted this erroneous claim, and if it has, could you please inform me as to when or where this erroneous claim has been corrected?

You point out that the claim of the bodies being in the septic tank has been debunked by various people involved in the story, and that there needs to be an explicit on air correction:

I believe statements made by As It Happens to be very close to defamatory and while it is unlikely the elderly members of a religious order in Ireland would take legal action over malicious statements made by a radio program in Canada, professional journalistic standards and simple decency require As It Happens to publicly correct the false claims they have made.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The executive producer of As It Happens, Robin Smythe, answered your questions and replied to your concerns. She said the details regarding the Tuam mother and baby home are “indeed complex.” She said As It Happens stands by its coverage because “our focus has always been on how this could have happened, how the babies died, and what happened to their remains.” She mentioned that there is now a full inquiry into the events, and that while the details of how and where the bodies were disposed are still unclear, there is no dispute that nearly 800 children died at the facility, because the death certificates for 796 have been made public.

In reply to your statement that there is no evidence to support the claim of human remains in a septic tank, she talked about two men who discovered some bones beneath a concrete slab on the site of the facility when they were children. She pointed out that others referred to burial there, including an Irish politician.

She told you that because there does seem to be some confusion about the exact whereabouts of the remains, As It Happens altered the information on its website introduction to the second interview it did to “reflect that the children are buried in a mass grave near, but not just in the septic tank.” She said that the woman who discovered the death certificates, Catherine Corless, says that “while all of the children may not have been buried near the septic tank, they are likely buried somewhere on the grounds.” For these reasons, she felt As It Happens did not need to retract what you referred to as an “erroneous claim.”

REVIEW

CBC News’s Journalistic Standards and Practices lists accuracy as one of its core values. In journalism, precision of language is paramount. There is a need to pay close attention to details.

The story of the Tuam mother and child home captured a great deal of attention right around the world. I suspect that is because it is dramatic in its own right and also because the popular movie Philomena has raised awareness of the historic treatment of unwed mothers in Ireland. Many news organizations confused or conflated two facts early on in the coverage. Back in the seventies two young boys found children’s bones in what was believed to be the septic tank on the home’s property. A local amateur historian, Catherine Corless, revealed the existence of 796 death certificates going back nearly four decades. The causes of death ranged from measles and pneumonia to laryngitis and malnutrition. Ms. Corless found the death certificates, but she was unable to obtain any burial certificates. She strongly suspects that there are more bodies buried on the grounds, but there has been no excavation yet. Why the death rate was so high and where those children are buried remains unclear.

On June 3, As It Happens introduced the story on its broadcast this way:

It was referred to as “The Home” -- a facility for unwed and expectant mothers in Ireland. Now a mass grave has been discovered beside The Home, and it’s estimated that the bodies of nearly eight hundred children are buried at the site.

The children range in age from newborn to nine years old. Their remains were found in an old septic tank that seemingly went unused by the home. It was run by the Bon Secours nuns from 1925 to 1961 in County Galway, Ireland. And for forty years, children died at the home, at a rate of two a month.

Today, an Irish government junior minister has called for an inquiry into the deaths. Susan Lohan is all-too-aware of the conditions in the homes for unwed mothers. She’s the director of the Adoption Rights Alliance. We reached her in Dublin.

The headline on the corresponding website says: “Mass Grave of 800 children found in Ireland.” The website article goes on to say that “a mass grave has been discovered.” Both the introduction on air and the website piece overstate what is currently proven. This is a violation of CBC policy. If there was confusion at the time, it does not mean that the information should not be changed when new facts emerge. Ms. Smythe tells me that the original online headline referred to a mass grave in a septic tank, and that was changed as soon as the story was clarified. Unfortunately, the edit did not go far enough.

The second interview As It Happens did, with a member of the Irish parliament, was introduced in this way:

"Can this be true?" That was a common question from our listeners last night, after we aired a story about the nearly eight hundred children whose remains were found in a septic tank near a former home for unwed mothers in Ireland. The sad answer is yes, it is true. And there are seven-hundred-and-ninety-six death certificates to prove it. All of the children died while in the care of the Sisters of Bon Secours at St. Mary's Children's Home in Tuam, County Galway.

It now appears that up to four thousand children may have met a similar fate at so-called “mother and baby homes” across Ireland. Most of the homes operated between the 1920s and 1960s.

Ciaran Cannon is an Irish government Minister who also represents County Galway, where the home was located. He’s calling for a public inquiry into the deaths. We reached Mr. Cannon in Dublin.

It too contains an inaccuracy. The headline on the website also falls short: “Irish Government Minister calls for inquiry into mass child grave.” The body of the story, which Ms. Smythe mentioned had been amended, refers to “796 children whose remains are thought to be buried in a mass grave near a former home for unwed mothers in Ireland.” This is a more accurate reflection of what is known about this story at this time.

CBC News policy on corrections notes that:

We make every effort to avoid errors on the air and online. In keeping with values of accuracy, integrity and fairness, we do not hesitate to correct a significant error when we have been able to establish that one has occurred. This is essential for our credibility with Canadians. When a correction is necessary, it is made promptly given the circumstances, with due regard for the reach of published error.

The fact that a situation has evolved so that information that was accurate at the time of its publication is no longer accurate does not mean that an error was committed, but we must consider the appropriateness of updating it, taking into account its importance and impact.

In the case of online and archived material, it is the practice to note the correction is made in the interests of transparency. That should be done in this case.

In reviewing your complaint with Ms. Smythe, she realized that there was room for improvement and said she will be amending the online versions of the stories. She also committed to returning to this story as it develops, and to use that opportunity to clarify what is known and what is suspected. While there was violation of policy, I consider this an acceptable outcome.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman