A June 4 Washington Post story about a former home for unwed mothers in Tuam, Ireland, got a new headline on June 24: “Historian believes bodies of 800 babies, long-dead, are in a tank at Irish home for unwed mothers.”
The piece, by Terrence McCoy, bears a correction at the bottom:
Correction: The original headline on this story was “Bodies of 800 babies, long dead, found in septic tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers.” No bodies have been found in a tank. The historian believes they are there based on her research. The Irish government is investigating.
A couple key parts of the story, though, do not reflect the information in the correction. A key “perhaps” adorns this sentence: “More than five decades after the Home was closed and destroyed — where a housing development and children’s playground now stands — what happened to nearly 800 of those abandoned children has perhaps now emerged: Their bodies were piled into a massive septic tank sitting in the back of the structure and forgotten, with neither gravestones nor coffins.”
But assertions by the historian, Catherine Corless, that “The bones are still there” and “The children who died in the Home, this was them” are unadorned in the body copy by what readers might consider important context: that no bodies have been found.
The story’s copy didn’t change when the headline did, Post spokesperson Kris Coratti tells Poynter. “The story itself is about historian Catherine Corless and her research findings, which include eye witness accounts of bones having been seen in that area. The premise of the story remains the same. When we quote her, or refer to her findings we did not change her language.”
The language in the story and the corrected headline, Coratti said, “referred to her findings theoretically, using words like ‘perhaps’ and ‘believes.’”
Another story on the Post’s PostEverything section by “Philomena” author Martin Sixsmith, published June 6, began “The discovery of a grave containing the remains of as many as 800 babies at a former home for unmarried mothers in Ireland is yet another problem for the Irish Catholic Church.”
Sixsmith writes he “visited the site — the home was demolished in the 1970s — and spoke with locals who remember babies’ skulls emerging from the soil around their houses. When boys broke open the cover of the sewage pit, they found it ‘full to the brim’ of skeletons.”
Following a phone call between Coratti and Poynter, PostEverything editor Adam Kushner added a correction to the Sixsmith piece.
Shawn Pogatchnik, who wrote those stories, wrote another published June 23 titled “Media Exaggerated Horror Tale at Irish Orphanage.”
When Corless published her findings on a Facebook campaign page, and Irish media noticed, she speculated to reporters that the resting place of most, if not all, could be inside a disused septic tank on the site. By the time Irish and British tabloids went to print in early June, that speculation had become a certainty, the word “disused” had disappeared, and U.S. newspapers picked up the report, inserting more errors, including one that claimed the researcher had found all 796 remains in a septic tank.
Another Washington Post piece, on June 9, addressed some of the problems with earlier stories, including the Post’s. ” No one is challenging Corless’s archival research, which appears to show that nearly 800 babies and children died at the home over a period of 40 years, without burial records,” Henry Farrell wrote.
However, on the basis of the evidence so far, this isn’t a scandal about skeletons dumped into a septic tank. It’s a scandal about the systematized neglect of children over a period of decades.