October 20, 2015
Inside an Error: Sources Lied, But We Should Have Checked
Blog by Cristi Hegranes, founder & executive director
The story seemed simple. A local woman was using her past history of domestic abuse to create a new way forward for other abused women in Kenya.
As all GPJ articles are, this article was pitched and reported locally and went through our prized multi-tiered fact checking process. But our process broke down. We have issued just 12 corrections over the last nine and a half years. And this is the first time in our history that we are retracting a story.
In the spirit of transparency and in order to help readers understand the complexity of this kind of global feature reporting, this blog aims to explain the details of our process that resulted in the error. In investigating the complex circumstances that led to our mistake, we hope to illuminate the integrity of our own practice and help ensure this kind of error doesn’t happen again.
Seemingly simple stories can, at times, be most problematic for journalists. It’s for these stories that we can let our guard down, and allow details into our content that, for a more complex story, would have been examined from every angle.
On Oct. 21, Global Press Journal published a story about a domestic violence shelter in Nairobi. The story included details about proposed legislation that could have resulted in more safe havens for victims of violence, and how one woman said she was working to provide for that need.
Global Press reporter Lydia Matata, who is based in Nairobi, didn’t have any sort of personal relationship with the source. She had written about her before, for another publication, when that source spoke out about sexual violence. For our story, the source, who recently won a local award for her work around domestic violence advocacy, welcomed Lydia to the domestic violence shelter she said she founded and showed her around. That day, Lydia also interviewed one of the shelter’s counselors, and several of the shelter’s residents. She spoke with women’s rights activists, and pulled together statistics about domestic violence in Kenya.
From there, the story went through Global Press Journal’s intensive editing process. Africa regional editor Wairimu Michengi reviewed it, then sent it on to our headquarters team. Managing editor Krista Kapralos performed an edit, then sent it along to editorial producer Lisa Bergquist, who handles fact checking.
We’re proud of our fact checking process. It is meticulous, time consuming and proven. Fact check reviews are performed five times during the editorial process – something that is unheard of in this era of journalism. We’ve had just a handful of corrections in the near-decade since we started publishing, and that’s because we take accuracy very seriously. Every detail of every story is thoroughly vetted. We scour the Internet and spend hours combing through documents.
But in some cases, we just have to take a source’s word for it.
For example, when 12-year-old Ibrahim Kahasha told reporter Mariam Aboubakar Esperance, based in Democratic Republic of Congo, that he’d left school to start working two years ago, all we have to go on is Ibrahim’s recollection of the time frame.
Nanda Keshari Maharjan in Nepal told reporter Yam Kumari Kandel that a traditional midwife used a risky method to help her in childbirth. There’s no way to independently verify that account.
With so many personal anecdotes in our stories, even our nearly bullet-proof fact checking process can’t completely protect us. We train our reporters to check facts and when in doubt, to rely on intuition. Editors are trained to question them ad nauseam about why they believe their sources are truthful.
But even that did not prepare us for the unseen controversy we waded into when we decided to cover this story. Shortly after the story was published, an online women’s group based in Kenya raised questions about Lydia’s story. Specifically, the group suggested that the primary source in the story was not the owner of the shelter she claimed to have created.
It was soon clear that the women involved on both sides were engaged in a battle that ran much deeper than our story. Accusations were flying from two sides – those who insisted that the woman we named as the owner was a strong, honest advocate for women; and the other group suggested she was a liar and taking credit away from other women working in the domestic violence space in Kenya.
But neither side has been able to show proof of the shelter’s ownership.
When pressed, the story’s detractors refused to provide information, like registration papers, a lease or information about the trust they said operates the shelter. Some of their claims seem nonsensical, and most are at odds with everything we thought we knew when we published the story. One of the women who works at the shelter and was originally interviewed for the story now claims that she is the owner, but she did not make that claim at the time of the initial report. She has not been able to provide proof of ownership. She agreed to meet with our reporter again, but only in the presence of one of the members of the online group. The woman we named as the owner has also failed to provide any kind of verifiable information to confirm ownership.
On Fri., Oct. 30, Lydia, accompanied by GPJ’s Africa regional editor, visited the Ministry of Labour, Social Security and Services, where this type of organization is generally registered. Lydia asked a clerk there to search for any organizations listed under the shelter’s purported name. The clerk told Lydia that there was none listed, either within that department or in any government department.
We’ve hit a dead end, and we still don’t know the truth.
But what we do know for sure is that we failed our readers. At the time of reporting, we had no reason to question the shelter’s ownership. Lydia visited the shelter, and when the source who claimed to be the owner walked through, everyone there treated her as though she was the owner –including the woman who now claims that she is the rightful owner.
Even so, we should have checked. There’s an old saying among journalists: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Even when a detail seems obvious, or it seems that the whole world agrees, find out for sure. We should have verified the shelter’s ownership before the story was published, and we didn’t. We take full responsibility for this error.
We at Global Press Journal have redoubled our efforts to ensure 100 percent accuracy in every story we publish. If you think one of our stories includes an error, contact us! We want to know, and we want to find the truth. We’re thankful that our readers take accuracy as seriously as we do.