Bil Browning

An Apology: About Yesterday's Erroneous Post

Filed By Bil Browning | August 17, 2011 3:15 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media, Site News
Tags: Christina Santiago, Elisha Brennon, Indiana state fair, Indianapolis coroner, Mea Culpa, poor reporting

I'm sorry: My apologiesWhen you screw up, it's important to acknowledge the mistake and correct it. I made a mistake with my post yesterday about Indiana State Fair victim Christina Santiago and the Indianapolis coroner's office. I reported that the office refused to release Santiago's body to her grieving partner for burial, citing federal and Indiana laws against same-sex marriage. Those close to Santiago and her partner, Alisha Brennon, quickly denied the report.

I had multiple sources for the article and the coroner's office didn't comment before publication, although I called twice for comment and made sure they knew I had a deadline. Once the story went live, a representative called but wouldn't deny that the incident happened - she only called it a "misunderstanding" repeatedly. I felt comfortable running the story. Granted, the woman seemed distracted (I was put on hold twice after asking if a staffer had said what was alleged because she said she was working "a scene" while we spoke), but I took the non-denial to be an admission that the incident happened, the office had reversed course, and things were back on track. From her nervous manner to the repeated pauses after my question, it felt like the representative was seeking guidance on how to deflect the situation to cover for an employee's insensitivity. Even in other reporting, I haven't seen an actual denial it was said - only the "misunderstanding" talking point.

I called Santiago's employer for comment as well. They acknowledged they'd heard the rumor from other reporters calling the same day for comment, but since they had no direct knowledge either, I didn't ask for a quote. Instead, I took the answer to be a small verification that my sources were correct. When I discovered that another Indy television reporter was doing on-camera interviews about the story too, it reinforced my confidence in the veracity of the story.

Shortly after the coroner's office made a statement, an organization called Amigas Latinas put out a statement that denied the incident. Since this source of information was secondhand through an out-of-state group, I was unsure of the veracity of their claim. After all, who knew if they actually knew what was going on in another state. My sources said they had direct knowledge!

Their statement read:

Amig@s. We've seen a few posts asking folks to call the media because of a claim that Alisha's wishes aren't being respected because the tragedy took place in Indiana. This is NOT TRUE! We appreciate the passion for equality and justice on behalf of these mujeres, but everyone has been working together to honor Christina Santiago. Please intervene if you see this news...

As the afternoon ground on, more and more doubts crept in to my mind as more and more people close to the two women contacted me. What if the coroner's rep was just busy and unused to speaking to the press? What if this "misunderstanding" comment was her way of saying that the entire incident was untrue? Everyone I spoke to at the corner's office seemed to tacitly agree that the incident had happened, but what if my history of dealing with homophobic behavior by Indiana office holders was coloring my opinion?

Indiana's lack of basic LGBT protections (the last pro-gay rights movement in the state was the Supreme Court's smack down of sodomy laws) and majority of rabidly anti-gay politicians has given the state a horrendous record on LGBT civil rights. Using the same basic justifications, a Hoosier court ruled recently that two long-term partners could be separated after one man had a debilitating stroke and his anti-gay mother asserted control of her son's affairs. She took her son home and has blocked the couple from seeing each other since. Since Indiana doesn't recognize same-sex relationships, the court decided his mother had more legal standing than his longterm partner.

Our governor has repeatedly spoken at fundraising dinners for anti-gay groups affiliated with officially designated hate groups. The highest ranking Democrat voted in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and civil union ceremonies after pressure from his Catholic bishop earlier this year. The state Democrat party sent out official campaign materials denouncing gay and lesbian relationships as recently as a couple of years ago.

My mistake was never speaking to the alleged victim; Santiago's partner is still in intensive care in an Indianapolis hospital, and it seemed crass to call her for a statement. Instead, I relied on my sources for verification. This was a grievous lack of judgement on my part.

I didn't report on the original tragedy at the fair because it wasn't LGBT-relevant. I consciously didn't report that one of the victims was a lesbian, because it seemed crass and unimportant to inject sexuality into a story about life and death. But when I thought one of our tribe was being abused by the local government during her worst hour, my activist outrage overpowered my journalistic common sense and mayhem has ensued.

I'm justifiably proud of my usual record of correctly reporting on important stories. In a couple of weeks I'll be accepting the National Gay & Lesbian Journalist Association's Online Journalist of the Year award & sitting on a panel discussion on how to maintain your credibility online. This is a perfect case study in doing the exact opposite. This was not award winning reporting, and I know it. It was below the expectations our readers have for the site and my own personal standards.

Please accept my apologies for not taking the usual care in following up behind sources. I rushed to publication and that decision has caused the families of two women who have already suffered the ultimate pain to suffer further. While I was trying to help, I ended up hurting not only those immediately involved and closest to the women, but thousands of Bilerico fans who look to us as an important news source, untold other news services who quickly picked up my inaccurate report, and my own credibility.

There is no excuse for my actions. While I thought I had my facts correct, I didn't and that responsibility lays firmly at my own feet. I'm sorry.

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Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | August 17, 2011 3:40 PM

Thanks, Bil. The episode and my own brush with it with Fox 59 Indy has brought home to me personally the vastly complicated issue of who has what obligation to fact check items and when. The issue seemed reasonably settled in the "old" media; the Internet has thrown all of that asunder. What's a "reliable source"? And even when a site justifiably earns that reputation, is there still a degree of caution to be exercised in linking to or quoting it? And that goes for people who would hardly call themselves bloggers, columnists, or anything close. Just plain E-mailers, twitterers, or other creatures Al Gore invented.

There may be no real answers to those questions. But that doesn't mean they ought not continue to be asked.

As the daughter of a lifelong journalist and someone who has been in and around it all my life, myself, my life experiences and better judgement were immediately tripped when I first read online that her "partner was being denied the remains due to DOMA."

Two things there that gave me pause ... 1) her partner was still in critical condition in the hospital, so how was it possible that she was indeed requesting the body? and 2) it was widely reported that they planned to get married in 2012, so DOMA was not even an issue on the table. So right off the bat, this story demanded further questioning and investigating. That never seemed to happen. The story took on a life of its own ...

Also ... Amigas Latinas was an organization identified in almost every reputable story about the accident - it was one that Santiago was fully immersed in. Despite their separation from the Coroner's office in miles, I would say they were pretty close with regards to factual proximity.

I feel bad for everyone involved in this: from those I watched aimlessly but passionately stoking the fire - to those at the Coroner's office fielding the hate-filled calls - to the family for being second-handly embroiled in it ... and believe it when I say Bil, you were not the only one who jumped on the momentum of this presumed anti-gay rumor.

Let's all take pause and realize it is better to be right than first.

After writing to the Syrian Consulate in New York on behalf of a non-existent lesbian blogger, I still responded (to a different site's reportage based on yours) to the early report with a call for direct action to peacefully blockade the coroner's office until the matter was resolved. When I learned that the situation was not anywhere near as bad as reported, I pulled back from that call.

Still, there could be situations in super-DOMA states where something like the initial report really could happen, with no appropriate workaround, particularly in the worst cases of "predatory family with an attitude" which is apparently not the case here.

Notwithstanding the actual facts here, the potential is there for horror stories in the future - all the more reason to eliminate DOMA and all its hideous state-level ilk.

Thanks for pulling the entry once it came into question and for thoroughly verifying those who offered a different view....merely offering a retraction would have muddied waters more. The rebuttals to the entry are filled with misconceptions themselves, one IL news quotes the IN coroner using the term "wife".Your explanation, and apology are sincere.We need to take into account the atmosphere of IN, as you mentioned, which speaks for continued discrimination as the majority for GLBTQI. (but it is changing)

The original mistake is regrettable, Bil, but you are doing the right thing to pull the story and correct the info as best you can. Your re-commitment to high journalistic standards is commendable, and getting rarer all the time in the online world. Thanks for "doing the right thing".

Redjellydonut | August 17, 2011 8:29 PM

The story fell apart on first reading. Every story I could find about Santiago after I read your original post via Savage reports that she was still in intensive care when all of this was supposed to have taken place. That individual fact undermines the premise that she was trying to recover her partner's body. I wish you'd left the story up as a case-study of how these kinds of things can happen, even with the best possible intentions.

I'm glad to see this apology, and others have weighed in with the points I have made or could make. But while the immediate issue is behind us, some questions around sources linger for me.

Amongst them is this: you have a few and perhaps several Chicago writers on this blog, including me. If you'd written to any of us, we could have put you in touch with people close to Christina so that you could verify the facts. I've lived here for a very long time, and know several people who knew her and know her partner personally, especially in the Latina queer community. That's not a silly boast, or petulance: it's just a statement of fact about something that could have easily helped avoid all this. I'm baffled as to why you didn't contact me or any of the other Chicago writers while rushing to publish this.