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Freelance reporter fired from Boston Globe for adding fictitious details to story

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Barbara Stewart, former freelance reporter for The Boston Globe, was dismissed this week after adding fictitious details to a story about events which actually did not occur at the time of her writing. The Boston Globe's Executive Editor Helen Donovan called the incident a "significant breach" and said, "We should have noticed the lack of attribution on a couple of key facts and should have asked questions we didn't ask."

The story in question was about a Canadian seal hunt that was supposed to take place, but actually did not occur that day because of bad weather. Stewart wrote about it anyway as though it had actually happened. Her article, dated April 13, began, "Over the vigorous protests of international animal-welfare organizations, the largest seal hunt in a half-century resumed yesterday off Newfoundland and Labrador. Hunters on about 300 boats converged on ice floes, shooting harp seal cubs by the hundreds, as the ice and water turned red. Most of the seals were less than 6 weeks old."

"When I read the article, I was kind of shocked," said Phil Jenkins, spokesman for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, according to The Washington Post. Jenkins said he told the Globe that "the events as described in quite vivid detail had not taken place."

The Canadian hunt for harp seal cubs is an annual event that has been drawing protests from animal rights activists since the 1960s. The hunts take place on ice floes and sometimes in weather conditions that can deter protesters from visiting the event.

James Smith, Foreign Editor at the Globe, says that the Globe will now institute stricter hiring practices for future part-time correspondents. He reports Stewart as saying after the incident was uncovered: "I don't know why I did this. I've never done anything like this before."

Stewart has been a reporter for The New York Times' Metro Desk between October, 1994 and May, 2004; according to the Boston Herald, the Times denied that Stewart fabricated any parts of stories while she was employed there. This was Stewart's third article for the Globe.

Other press controversies

In another example of recent press controversy, Mitch Albom has been suspended from the Detroit Free Press for writing ahead of time about the attendance at a Final Four basketball game by two former Michigan State University players, who told him they would be attending but later did not.

Other notable press scandals in recent years have included the Jayson Blair scandal of numerous fabrications and plagiarisms in 2003 at The New York Times, which led to the resignation of Blair and two editors.

The Globe itself has been marked by similar scandals in 1998 which led to the resignation of two columnists, Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle, in separate incidents.

Bob Zelnick, chairman of the Department of Journalism at Boston University, called the current Globe controversy "embarrassing...a serious problem...a lapse of editorial judgment", but Dan Kennedy of the Boston Phoenix characterized the incident as "probably not that big a deal", according to The Washington Post. "It was an unknown freelancer writing a fairly small story inside the paper, and they took care of it immediately."

The Globe published a correction two days later on April 15. It appears from a Google search that the prior story may have been removed from the boston.com website; however, it is currently still accessible in the Google cache.

Sources