A Reporting Error Reveals What Makes GPJ’s Coverage Unique

June 13, 2017

GLOBAL PRESS, HQ — A year ago, Global Press Journal reporter Yam Kumari Kandel wrote about people who had suffered during Nepal’s civil war and who were still waiting for justice. Among those featured in Yam’s story was Devi Sunuwar, whose daughter, Maina Sunuwar, was abducted and killed during that war.

In April, three men were convicted of killing Maina. Human rights advocates say those verdicts should be the first in a wave against soldiers, militia members and others who tortured and murdered during the war. We’ve published a number of stories on human rights abuses that occurred during the civil war. (Read about a former child soldier here, about an injured former police officer here and about a child who lost her father here.) It has been well-established that these horrific killings weren’t uncommon during the war.

We published Yam’s story of those convictions in May, but our coverage was marred by the discovery that our first story, published in August, incorrectly stated Maina’s age at the time of her death. We reported that she was 17 years old, but her mother told Yam during interviews for this most recent story that the girl was 14.

This discovery was tremendously frustrating. How could we, a news agency that prides itself on accuracy, botch such a basic fact? I reviewed human rights organizations’ reports on Maina’s case and noticed that most of them reported that Maina was 15 when she died.

So now we had three ages: 14, 15 and 17. Which was correct? I searched my memory for details on how the story was edited and recalled that Yam had interviewed Devi Sunuwar at length. The story we published in 2016 wasn’t based on other news reports or details from human rights advocates. This is a key way that Global Press differs from other news organizations: We never take as fact what has been published in other news media. We always search for firsthand verification.

I waited for the clock to tick toward morning in Nepal, when Yam would see my questions about the contradiction and, hopefully, offer an easy explanation.

When she did respond, she acknowledged that the 2016 story did incorrectly state Maina’s age at the time of her death. It was human error, she told me, because she had written the wrong age in her notebook when she first interviewed Devi Sunuwar. The correct age was 14, Yam said, not 15, as other news agencies had reported.

Yam reminded me that the question of Maina’s age was repeatedly discussed during the fact checking process of the 2016 story, when Yam said that Devi Sunuwar insisted that other news agencies had the age wrong. One news agency reported that Maina was 15 when she died, and other news reports followed along. The error might have originally occurred because Nepal doesn’t usually use the Gregorian calendar, so Maina’s date of birth was likely converted incorrectly. And the inaccuracy spread from there.

The fact checker trusted Yam, as did I. We got Maina’s age wrong in the 2016 story not because we copied an inaccurate detail from other news agencies, but because Yam made a very basic — and very human — mistake when she took her notes.

It was the right call to trust Yam when we edited the 2016 story. We reported an inaccuracy, but not in the same way that others did and not for the same reason. A mother is the best source for her deceased daughter’s age. A reporter who interviews the mother directly is the best person to report that information for global readers. Yam is a spectacular reporter. She’s also a human, prone to typos and basic transcription flaws. We don’t condone inaccuracies in our stories, but we understand that mistakes happen. It would have been a different situation had Yam blindly repeated what other news agencies reported.

Even so, we regret the error.