When 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.