In April, The New York Times Magazine ran a harrowing story: “I’m an E.R. Doctor in New York. None of Us Will Ever Be the Same.”
“A Covid diary: This is what I saw as the pandemic engulfed our hospitals,” the sub-headline added.
There were plenty of details that stuck out from the piece, but one of the most harrowing involved a 26-year-old medical resident who had reportedly died of COVID-19 at a New York City hospital.
It’s the kind of thing that chills you: A young man acting in service to his community, with so many years ahead of him to give to medicine, dying short of 30 of a disease we didn’t think of as affecting young people the same as it did the aged or those with pre-existing conditions. As eye-openers go, that one is pretty dramatic.
So yes, about that: It turns out the 26-year-old who died wasn’t a medical resident. Nor did he work in a New York City hospital at all.
The piece, written by Helen Ouyang, described the chaos and heartbreak inside New York’s hospitals. That there was plenty of it it to go around, I have no doubt. It’s this part, however, that stuck out for many:
“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 I search the internet for any news articles about this and find nothing,” an archived version of the article reads.
“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. Apparently, a second trainee is dead. On Twitter, I see that a Detroit-area oral-surgery resident has died. His name and photo are in the tweet. ‘Christopher Firlit.’ I say his name out loud; I look at his photo. I want to honor his death. I want people to know; I don’t want these doctors to die in anonymity. Eventually, I put my phone away.”
It now reads as such: “A couple days later, I see on Twitter that a Detroit-area oral-surgery resident has died. His name and photo are in the tweet. ‘Christopher Firlit.’ I say his name out loud…”
The first part, as you notice, is gone. At the bottom of the story, however, is now an editors’ note.
“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,” the editors’ note reads.
“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.”
So remember in April when The NY Times Magazine ran a cover story that was the diary of an ER doctor in NYC—and the piece reported on the death of a 26 year old doctor?
Well, it turns out the doctor didn’t die—or even have covid. pic.twitter.com/3p1iTxZGTm
— Zac Bissonnette (@ZacBissonnette) May 27, 2020
In a story where every detail was supposed to hit you with a thud, this was more like a Mike Tyson blow to the solar plexus.
It induced fear: Anyone is vulnerable. And then there was the sense of this young man’s service — and how it cost him his life.
I’m sure there were a number of facts to check in this piece, not all of them easy to track down, but perhaps this was one a bit more attention should have been lavished on.
Health workers believing someone was a medical resident isn’t the same as an individual being a medical resident.
If the name was known, one assumed the resident could be tracked down. The American College of Emergency Physicians was certainly able to do it perfectly well. The Gray Lady couldn’t get it done?
Beyond that, it’s worth noting this is an editors’ note, not a correction. There’s a difference.
Quoth The Times back in 2018: “Occasionally we publish an Editors’ Note, generally to acknowledge a journalistic lapse other than a factual error: failure to include a response from a company criticized in an article, for example, or the omission of crucial information that might have altered readers’ understanding of an issue.”
Right after that, rather comically, the author said “[s]ome colleagues have raised the question of whether we publish too many corrections for small mistakes, to the point of making ourselves look foolish.”
“But I agree with what Clark Hoyt wrote in 2007, when he was the paper’s public editor: ‘A great newspaper has to get the big things right, but it also has to pay fanatical attention to thousands of details every day to prevent the kinds of mistakes that start readers wondering, ‘If they can’t spell his name right, what else is wrong with the story?’'”
That, in the space of two short years, has degraded to the point where printing a paragraph about the death of a 26-year-old medical resident from coronavirus when they had the wrong person doesn’t even deserve a correction, but just the editors’ note.
When one of the most fear-inducing facts in a fear-inducing piece turns out to be fake news and it doesn’t even warrant a correction, The New York Times is telling us something. We should listen.
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