The Boston Globe acknowledged yesterday publishing a partially fabricated story by a freelance reporter about a Canadian seal hunt that had not taken place.
"Hunters on about 300 boats converged on ice floes, shooting harp seal cubs by the hundreds, as the ice and water turned red," Barbara Stewart wrote in a piece published Wednesday, the day after the hunt was scheduled to begin. It was delayed until yesterday by bad weather.
"We should have noticed the lack of attribution on a couple of key facts and should have asked questions we didn't ask," Executive Editor Helen Donovan said. "We should have been alert to the fact that something was missing. . . . It's definitely a significant breach."
The Globe ran a correction yesterday and severed its relationship with Stewart, who was writing her third story for the paper. Stewart, who filed her report from Halifax, was a metro reporter for the New York Times from 1994 to 2004, writing mainly for suburban weekly sections, and for the Orlando Sentinel before that.
The Globe acted after a Canadian government official contacted the newspaper Wednesday. Stewart's account said that the hunt had begun off the coast of Newfoundland "over the vigorous protests of international animal-welfare organizations" and that "most of the seals were less than six weeks old."
"When I read the article, I was kind of shocked," said Phil Jenkins, spokesman for the Canadian fisheries ministry. He said he told the Globe that "the events as described in quite vivid detail had not taken place. . . . They took it very seriously."
Foreign Editor Jim Smith reached Stewart on Thursday morning. "She's very upset and distraught about what happened," he said.
Stewart said she had done much of the reporting about the hunt in advance and "wrote a top assuming it was going to start on Tuesday," Smith recalled. He said she could not remember whether she spoke to a hunter who said the annual event was about to begin on Monday night or Tuesday morning. "Clearly, that doesn't in any way forgive the many errors that took place on her part and our part," Smith said.
Stewart did not respond to a message left at her Nova Scotia home.
Her downfall carries echoes of the recent controversy at the Detroit Free Press, where star sports columnist Mitch Albom has been suspended and remains under investigation for writing about a Final Four basketball game the day before it took place. Albom described two former Michigan State University players as being in the stands rooting for their alma mater, but while they had told Albom they planned to attend, neither made it to the game.
The Stewart case "is embarrassing and a serious problem because the Globe should not have taken as gospel the account of a freelancer who wasn't even at the scene," said Bob Zelnick, chairman of Boston University's journalism department. "Many of the details were written as if she were at the scene. It's just a lapse of editorial judgment."
But Dan Kennedy, media writer for the Boston Phoenix, said the incident "is probably not that big a deal. It was an unknown freelancer writing a fairly small story inside the paper, and they took care of it immediately." As for whether the Globe should have been more vigilant, Kennedy said: "No matter how many times this keeps happening, it's still a shock to editors. You just don't think people are going to do this."
The Globe had recovered from two ethical controversies that rocked the paper in 1998. Patricia Smith resigned after admitting she had fabricated parts of four columns. Columnist Mike Barnicle was forced to quit after the paper could not confirm the existence of two cancer-stricken boys he had written about.
Donovan said her staff looked at Stewart's clips from the Times and spoke to one or more editors at the New York paper when Stewart moved to Canada and applied to be a Globe stringer. The Globe is owned by the Times Co.
"Any time a paper runs something that has fabricated material, it's a problem," Donovan said. "It steers us to some ways we need to tighten up the editing."