Bad Habits

How Not to Read the News

Cases of media hysteria are never hard to find, but it would be hard to beat the story that sped around the world a few months ago. It's easy to see why. "Irish nuns kill 800 babies and dump bodies in septic tank" is an irresistible yarn. Despite the proliferation of faculties of media studies, the art of yellow journalism has not perished. It has just changed the set of characters. Instead of the opium-smoking, buck-teethed, slit-eyed Chinese villains who featured in newspapers at the turn of the last century, we now have Irish nuns. Dressed in bizarre black and white costumes, filmed from odd angles, wielding canes and scissors, they have devoted their lives to tormenting "fallen women."

So when a story emerged about human remains found on the site of a Catholic home for unmarried mothers and their children which operated between 1925 and 1961 in Tuam, County Galway, Ireland, the media went mad.

The facts were few, but it didn't take long for journalists to connect the dots and sketch images of murdered children and secret burials. Guardian columnist Emer O'Toole wrote in an incandescent fury: "Do not say Catholic prayers over these dead children. Don't insult those who were in life despised and abused by you. Instead, tell us where the rest of the bodies are."

It was a wonderfully salacious story, one that fitted neatly into the template for a lot of B-grade films and novels. The only problem was, it was wrong.

The fires of indignation burn hottest and highest when they are uncontaminated by facts. Media fury peaked in the first week of June. And then . . . it evaporated. There were no more facts to fuel the story. A preliminary government report issued in July placed the Galway home in the context of the practices of the time. By those standards, its infant death rate was relatively low.

Media Lessons to Learn

1.Emer O'Toole & Co. have not apologized and probably never will. But consumers of the media can learn from this story how to be more discerning when hysteria fills the news. For example: Most of the horrifying factoids have one source, a sketchy summary of research by a local historian, Caroline Corless, published in a Facebook post. Corless's work was diligent, but provided no historical context. Few Facebook posts do that.
► Don't trust news based on Facebook.

2.According to the news stories, 796 bodies had been buried in a septic tank. Headlines evoked dramatic images of forensic scientists excavating grave pits after the Bosnian War. But . . . no one had ever looked into the tank, so where did that beautifully precise figure 796 come from?

It came from Corless's research at the Civil Registrations Office, not from excavations. Each death at the home had been carefully recorded, indicating that the bodies were not casually disposed of. It is possible that at least some of the children were buried elsewhere, and that the crypt itself contains only a few dozen bodies. Until the government authorizes disinterment, no one will know.
► Don't trust news with gaping holes in the facts.

3.In 2014, recycling a septic tank as a crypt sounds atavistic, but similar barbarities happen today. Earlier this year Madrid's Compultense University found hundreds of cadavers piled higglety-pigglety in its basement, together with body parts that had been used for anatomy class demonstrations.

It may have taken the Irish home 36 years to fill a mass grave with 796 bodies, but in only two years, between 2011 and 2013, one of Britain's best hospitals, Addenbrooke's in Cambridge, incinerated the bodies of 797 babies below 13 weeks gestation as part of its "waste to energy" heating system.
► Don't trust news that is indignant with the past and indulgent with the present.

4.According to Corless, the children at the home had a mortality rate four or five times higher than the national average. A 1944 report described the children as "emaciated," "pot-bellied," and "fragile," with "flesh hanging loosely on limbs." Some children were "poor, emaciated and not thriving." Corless spoke with people who had spent time there as children who remembered bad food and harsh treatment.

But were these reports representative? In 1935 a spokesman for the Mayo Board of Health said that "Tuam is one of the best managed institutions I have seen in the country."
► Don't trust news that is based only on one expert.

5.The Home was funded by the Irish government and presumably supervised by the Irish government. If ill treatment, a high child-mortality rate, poor medical care, starvation rations, stigmatization of unwed mothers, and harsh and high-handed abuse did occur, the government must shoulder its share of the responsibility.
► Don't trust news that blames a complex issue on one party alone.

6.Before rushing to judgment on Tuam's Mother and Baby Home, journalists should have visited the website of the Hart Island Project. Hart Island is a small island offshore from the Bronx in Long Island Sound. For more than 150 years, immigrants, unidentified corpses, people whose relatives were unable to pay for a funeral, and stillborn babies have been interred there in unmarked graves. There are nearly a million of them, and they keep coming at a rate of 1,500 a year, including about 600 infants and stillborn babies (their mothers are often unaware of what it means to give their child a "City funeral").
► Don't trust news that lacks a historical perspective.

A More Truthful Frame

An unmarked mass grave and 796 bodies of small children unaccounted for are disturbing and must be investigated. By all means break open the crypt. Count the bones. Bury them. Form a committee. Convoke an investigation. Build a memorial. Weep. Those innocent and forgotten children deserve it.

But don't frame it as the Catholic Church's Srebrenica. Frame it first as a story about mid-century poverty, when the Irish government failed its unmarried mothers by entrusting them to pious incompetents. That may be closer to the truth. 

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #30, Fall 2014 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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