- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 26, 2005

Oops

We bungled a story pretty badly a few weeks ago, arousing heartfelt anger within the tightknit community of international relief groups. We are still working to make it right, but the episode has been a lesson for a talented and dedicated young reporter and for our editors as well.

Katherine Clad, an intern with the foreign desk, was assigned to write what we thought was a harmless and useful article about a new hospital being opened in Afghanistan by a group called CURE International.

Her story was full of facts and figures and brightly written with good quotes from CURE officials. And like any good reporter, she focused high up in the story on one particularly interesting detail:

“The group, which establishes and operates teaching hospitals in the developing world, is the only international humanitarian organization still working in Afghanistan,” Miss Clad wrote.



She quoted Dr. Scott Harrison, the founder and chief executive officer of the organization, saying “we’re not more courageous” than other organizations, but that CURE was able to remain because it works with the U.S. military.

It was good writing, but according to other relief groups who flooded us with complaints, flat wrong. As far as we can tell now, there are dozens of groups doing relief work in Afghanistan, including the International Committee of the Red Cross.

After reviewing her notes, Miss Clad says she is not certain that Dr. Harrison specifically claimed that all other groups had left the country, though his remark seemed to imply it. But a publicist’s e-mail pitching the story to us in the first place had said CURE was “the only remaining American medical [non-governmental organization] in Kandahar.”

The group’s Web site went further, saying that since the Red Cross and World Health Organization left the Kandahar region, “CURE remains the only international NGO present to meet the health needs of the people of Afghanistan.”

Corrections

When Miss Clad called back to CURE after receiving the complaints, they said they had been claiming only to be the only such organization working in the Kandahar region, not the whole country. They apologized profusely for having misled us, and they have since amended their Web site.

We printed a correction, saying the article should have identified CURE as the only relief group working in Kandahar. We also published a letter to the editor from the country director in Kabul of CARE, who wrote that “hundreds of international humanitarian and development organizations work in Afghanistan, including CARE, which started operating here in 1961.”

But complaints continued to filter back from the NGO community, some of whose members felt the correction failed to match the magnitude of the error. Others said we were still wrong, that there are other international groups still working in Kandahar.

The following exchange of e-mails among senior officials of major organizations was brought to my attention:

• “The correction is also wrong. There are plenty of NGOs in Kandahar as well!! Should we continue this saga or just let it go?”

• “My thinking exactly when I read this in the morning. The incompetence and lack of even basic due diligence is staggering. The Times deserves to have to issue two corrections for failing to do any research before printing a story like this and then trying to minimize the error in the initial correction.”

• “My two cents: We need to at least alert them to their continued bungling. What they choose to do at that point is up to them.”

This hurts. All I can say is that our only interest is to give our readers the most accurate and timely information that we can. We have assigned Miss Clad to do another article on the work being done by all the NGOs in Afghanistan — with a chart listing as many of them as we can. And this time we intend to make sure we get it right.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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