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Opinion New York Times Magazine appends editor’s note to covid-19 diary story

Medical workers move the body of a deceased patient to an overflow morgue in Brooklyn on April 2. (Angus Mordant/Bloomberg)
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No, an unnamed 26-year-old physician did not die of covid-19 in New York City, as the New York Times Magazine alleged in a diary-style story on April 14. Written by ER doctor Helen Ouyang, the piece chronicled her professional and emotional travails in facing down the coronavirus’s assault in March and April on the city’s health-care system. One of the passages read as follows:

Later in the day, a co-worker pulls me off to the side. A resident at another New York City training program died from coronavirus this week, she whispers. I search the internet for any news articles about this and find nothing. Maybe it’s a rumor, I tell myself before falling sleep that night. The next morning, I see the posts on Twitter. He was only 26. By the evening, I’ve received texts about him and another resident.

The language winds its way along the border between rumor and fiction, though it appears to land on firm, factual ground: “He was only 26.” In an editors’ note earlier this week, the New York Times Magazine corrected the record. Though the victim was 26, he wasn’t the physician to whom Ouyang was referring:

An earlier version of this article described an account that circulated among doctors in April about a 26-year-old medical resident training in New York who was said to have died of Covid-19 in a New York City hospital. This account was verified with sources involved in the patient’s care, but further reporting after publication revealed that it was apparently a case of mistaken identity. According to a spokeswoman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, a 26-year-old man who died from complications related to the coronavirus had the same name as a young medical resident at a different hospital. Health workers involved in the patient’s treatment mistakenly believed that he was a medical resident, but ACEP said it had subsequently confirmed that it was not the same man, and that the medical resident with that name was healthy. The reference to that case has been removed from the article.

Under the headline “I’m an E.R. Doctor in New York. None of Us Will Ever Be the Same,” Ouyang’s diary clocked in at nearly 10,000 words. The short passage about the alleged death of the 26-year-old physician, however, touched off some phone calls and emails. This was news — except there was no obituary or other news story corresponding to the details published in the diary piece.

A highly motivated reader contacted key officials at the New York Times with queries about the claim. The reporting, claimed the reader, didn’t meet the standards of the New York Times. “Is this piece really supposed to be about the emotional experience of the NYC ER rumor mill — or are readers supposed to believe that the stories recounted are true?” asked the reader in an email to the magazine’s editor in chief, Jake Silverstein. “If the former, I feel like there should be an editor’s note saying that, and even then, I’m concerned about the alarmism of things like this in the piece. A claim that a 26 year old physician died needs reporting, because I’m worried it fuels a certain hysteria that is dangerous.” (The reader, who wishes to remain anonymous, shared the correspondence with Times staffers with the Erik Wemple Blog.)

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Silverstein told the reader, “The story about the 26-year-old who died was reported by Helen, who spoke with the man’s attending physician to confirm details of his death. It was confirmed by fact-checkers, as was everything in the piece.” The reader also pressed Philip Corbett, associate managing editor for standards, as well as Executive Editor Dean Baquet, who emailed at one point, “Enough. Our Standards editor and the editor of the magazine have looked into this. We appreciate your holding us to account. But we have answered and we are done.”

On May 4, New York Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha told the Erik Wemple Blog that, pursuant to a reader’s question, editors and fact-checkers at the magazine reviewed their reporting. “We have spoken to someone with direct knowledge of the case who confirmed the facts we reported. It can, however, be difficult to gather detailed information in these situations, both because of privacy rules and because in many instances hospitals will not allow staffers to discuss their experiences with the news media. There is no known obit,” noted Ha. “We continue to believe that our account was accurate. However, we are continuing to seek more information, and if anything emerges suggesting that something we reported was wrong, we would of course correct it.”

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In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Silverstein said the magazine had assigned a researcher who hadn’t participated in the original story to re-investigate the claim. Original sourcing for the passage, says Silverstein, consisted of “medical workers at the hospital where this person had died.” There is “no discrepancy,” says Silverstein, between that description of the piece’s sourcing and his claim to the reader that Ouyang had spoken with the attending physician.

A spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) didn’t provide any information beyond what the New York Times published in its editor’s note. Silverstein noted, however, that the organization also received media inquiries about the alleged death and was somehow able to sort out the confusion. The magazine researcher, said Silverstein, was unable to independently confirm what ACEP discovered about the events, though Silverstein professed no reason to “disbelieve” the organization.

Last week, we chronicled the madness that can ensue when a news organization and a hospital lack touchstones such as a name or a date of birth. The Wall Street Journal reported that a woman in her 60s had died at the Montefiore Medical Center after residents had botched the settings on her ventilator. The Journal didn’t publish the woman’s name, and the hospital conducted an internal investigation of the incident based on the demographic information provided by the newspaper. That investigation, plus another probe by an outside group, found no evidence of the scenario described by the Journal, which stands by its account.

In the case of the alleged death in the Ouyang piece, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the oft-cited patient privacy act, “made it impossible for us to get that person’s name,” said Silverstein.

But reporting the death of a physician when, in fact, a physician didn’t die — that appears to be a perfect circumstance for a correction. So we asked Silverstein why an editor’s note addressed the mistake. “When things require complicated explanations, they tend to fall under the category of an editor’s note,” said Silverstein, who noted that the faulty text was excised, and not amended, as is the general practice for a correction.

We also asked Silverstein what lessons the magazine had learned here. He didn’t bite. “I’ll just leave it at what we’ve discussed," he said. Baquet wrote via email: “I think the lesson is we listened to [the reader], investigated, and made the correction.” We’ll add another: The saga expands the list of exotic ways that errors creep into journalism.

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