NEW YORK (AP) — 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 10-year-old rape victim, identity unknown, suddenly thrown into a political fight on one of the country’s most contentious issues.
The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post both clarified or corrected stories after an Ohio man was charged on Wednesday with raping the girl, who traveled to Indiana for an abortion last month.
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 Biden during a July 8 news conference to announce an executive order to try to protect access to abortion services.
“A 10-year-old should be forced to give birth to a rapist’s child?” Biden asked. “I can’t think of anything more extreme.”
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 the headline “Viral ‘pregnant 10-year-old rape victim’ abortion horror story deserves a deeper look.”
Fox wondered why the only apparent source for the story about the girl was the Indiana doctor, Caitlin Bernard, and whether she was credible because 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 10-year-old girl is rare.
“This is a very difficult story to check,” 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 Bernard. The newspaper’s executive editor, Bro Krift, has not discussed what steps the paper took to corroborate Bernard’s story, and declined comment to The Associated Press on Thursday.
A named source like 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.
Indiana’s attorney general, Republican Todd Rokita, said Thursday his office was investigating whether Bernard violated medical privacy laws by talking about the victim to the Star, or failed to notify authorities about suspected child abuse. The prosecutor for Indianapolis, Democrat Ryan Mears, said his office had the sole authority to pursue any such charges and that Bernard was being subjected to “intimidation and bullying.”
Bernard’s lawyer issued a statement Thursday that said the doctor provided proper treatment and did not violate any patient privacy laws or other rules. Bernard is also considering legal action against “those who have smeared my client,” including Rokita.
Bernard reported a June 30 medication abortion for a 10-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 idea that you would have politicians in America try to exploit a story like this and make up a story like this in order to advance their own sick agenda tells you they are not serious about the issue,” Fox News analyst Charlie Hurt said on Tuesday.
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.”
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.”
Kessler attached a note to his column updating 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 rape 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.”
PJ Media’s Fox said journalists should always question reporting and do their own digging, since media hoaxes are so prevalent today.
“I would ask every single question I asked in my original reporting again,” she told the AP.
PJ Media quickly pivoted on Thursday to a story headlined, “Illegal alien arrested in rape of 10-year-old abortion patient but questions remain.”
A Columbus police detective testified in a court hearing Wednesday that there was no evidence the suspect was in the country legally. In court documents filed the same day, a prosecutor said the suspect is not a U.S. citizen and is subject to potential deportation. The Associated Press is not identifying the suspect because there are questions about whether his reported name was real, and on the chance he’s a relative of the girl involved.
The incident shows how political punditry often moves faster than journalism, and that journalists are caught responding to the punditry, said Wisconsin’s Culver.
“The most important issue here is it appears that a 10-year-old was sexually assaulted,” she said, “and that is a tragedy.”
This story has been updated to correct the name of the Indiana doctor who performed the abortion. She is Caitlin Bernard, not Caitlan Bernard.
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.