It took only four paragraphs in a regional newspaper to ignite a media conflagration over abortion that in two weeks engulfed President Joe Biden, the partisan press, and some of the country’s top news organizations.
In the center of it all: a 1src-year-old sexual assault victim, identity unknown, suddenly thrown into a political fight on one of the country’s most contentious issues.
The case first came to light in a July 1 article in The Indianapolis Star about patients heading to Indiana for abortion services because of more restrictive laws in surrounding states, following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade. The piece began with an anecdote about an Indianapolis doctor asked by an Ohio colleague to help the girl, who was past the stage of pregnancy where she could get a legal abortion in Ohio.
The story was seized upon by Mr. Biden during a July 8 news conference to announce an executive order to try to protect access to abortion services.
By then, there were already questions raised about the Star’s story, notably in a series of tweets and a July 8 story in PJ Media by conservative columnist Megan Fox, under a headline saying that the story “deserves a deeper look.”
Ms. Fox wondered why the only apparent source for the story about the girl was the Indiana doctor, Caitlin Bernard, and whether she was credible given that she performs abortions and has protested restrictions placed on the service.
The Washington Post’s fact checker, Glenn Kessler, wrote last Saturday about those questions, noting that an abortion performed on a 1src-year-old girl is rare.
“This is a very difficult story to check,” Mr. Kessler wrote. “Bernard is on the record, but obtaining documents or other confirmation is all but impossible without details that would identify the locality where the rape occurred.”
The Star’s story did not identify the Ohio doctor who had called Ms. Bernard. The newspaper’s executive editor, Bro Krift, has not discussed what steps the paper took to corroborate Ms. Bernard’s story, and declined comment to The Associated Press on Thursday.
A named source like Ms. Bernard is a good start, said Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin. If the Star had other sources, it may not have wanted to provide them at the risk of identifying the victim, she said.
Ms. Bernard reported a June 3src medication abortion for a 1src-year-old patient to the state health department on July 2, within the three-day requirement set in state law for a girl younger than 16, according to the report obtained by The Indianapolis Star and WXIN-TV of Indianapolis.
In conservative media circles, questions raised about the sourcing quickly shifted to claims that the story was a lie.
The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial on Tuesday, called it “an abortion story too good to confirm.” The Journal wrote that “all kinds of fanciful tales travel far on social media these days, but you don’t expect them to get a hearing at the White House.”
Abortion foes sought to raise doubts about the veracity of the Indianapolis Star story, until Wednesday, when a man appeared in court in Franklin County, Ohio, for an arraignment on charges that he sexually assaulted the girl. A police investigator testified at the hearing that the defendant who was arrested on Tuesday, had confessed to raping the girl, as reported by Reuters.
‘Correcting the record’
Under the headline “Correcting the Record on a Rape Case” Thursday, the Journal wrote that “it appears President Biden was accurate.”
“The country needs to find a rough consensus on abortion now that it has returned to the states and the political process,” the Journal wrote. “One way to help is to make sure the stories about abortion, from either side of the debate, can be readily confirmed. Passions are already heated enough.”
Mr. Kessler of the Post attached a note to his column updating it with the arrest, and said it was a test case on whether journalists should rely on one source for an impactful story.
He faced intense heat online, both because of his original story and his explanations. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York tweeted that “this column is horrifying.” Waiting for law enforcement confirmation is questionable when many women don’t report sexual assaults to authorities, she said.
Shani George, a Washington Post spokesperson, said, “The intent of the piece was to spotlight the need for careful reporting in a time when information spreads rapidly.”
The incident shows how political punditry often moves faster than journalism, and that journalists are caught responding to the punditry, said Wisconsin’s Ms. Culver.
“The most important issue here is it appears that a 1src-year-old was sexually assaulted,” she said, “and that is a tragedy.”
This story was reported by the Associated Press. Associated Press reporters Kantele Franko, Julie Carr Smyth and Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio; and Tom Davies in Indianapolis, Indiana, contributed to this report. Material from Reuters was included in this report.