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How Did So Many Fact Checkers Get the Tragic Story of 10-Year-Old Ohio Girl Wrong?

In the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court overturning Roe V. Wade, a very troubling story appeared in The Indianapolis Star. It was the story of a 10-year-old Ohio girl who went to Indiana for an abortion after she’d been raped, since she could not legally get one in her home state. The case sent shockwaves across the news and was referenced by President Joe Biden, but other news outlets called the story’s veracity into question. The report cited an Indianapolis obstetrician, but she gave no further details and the lack of corroborating evidence led several fact checkers and politicians to loudly and publicly cry foul.

However, on Wednesday, law enforcement officials in Franklin County, Ohio, arraigned a 27-year-old man for raping the girl. According to NPR, “Detective Jeffrey Huhn had testified that Fuentes confessed to raping the girl at least twice, according to a videotape of the proceedings reviewed by NPR.” The arrest came the day after Ohio’s attorney general criticized the Star for reporting what he believed to be a fake story.

The tragic story speaks to a number of troubling elements in today’s politicized atmosphere, and to the sometimes slippery nature of fact checking.

On July 1, the Indianapolis Star published their lengthy article on the rapidly shifting landscape of abortion laws following the Supreme Court decision, noting that many Ohio women were crossing state lines for Indiana, where abortion laws are less strict. Dr. Caitlin Bernard told the story of a 10-year-old who was “six weeks and three days pregnant.” Because of Ohio’s ban on any abortion in which a fetal heartbeat can be detected, the girl was sent from Ohio to Indiana terminate the pregnancy.

Abortion advocates said the story was illustrative of the consequences of abortion bans. “She was forced to have to travel out of the state to Indiana to seek to terminate the pregnancy and maybe save her life,” said Biden. “Ten years old — ten years old! — raped, six weeks pregnant, already traumatized, was forced to travel to another state.”

However, other outlets called the story into question, expressing skepticism of a single-source story with no names or identifying details. “An Abortion Story Too Good to Confirm,” was the Wall Street Journal’s headline of an article that called it a “fanciful tale” (that article that has since gotten a lengthy editor’s note confirming the arrest). The Daily Caller said it was “totally unverified.” The Washington Post’s fact checker Glenn Kessler expressed skepticism, saying it was “very difficult story to check.” Several politicians jumped on the bandwagon too, with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem branding it “literal fake news” and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan calling it a “lie” in a since-deleted tweet.

But the story wasn’t a lie and it certainly wasn’t “too good” to confirm. In fact, Huhn testified that the girl’s mother had reported her daughter’s rape to the Franklin County’s Children Services agency on June 22. She got her abortion on June 30, and her story was published on July 1. It’s easy to guess at the many possible reasons her mother may not have wanted her daughter’s identity or story made more public.

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Obviously, a story this terrible and sensitive requires a lot of caution. Passions on both sides of the abortion debate run high — particularly when rape is involved and especially when it involves a child. That can lead to hasty errors, but this topic is just too important to get wrong.

It’s understandable that outlets would want to fact check this story. Good journalists should dig deeper into their colleagues’ work and be ready to ask questions and poke holes in accepted narratives. That’s a good thing. But for a reporter, it’s not enough to just ask questions. You have to actually get answers. The people who attempted to fact check the Indianapolis Star’s reporting had plenty of questions about the story itself, but publishing those questions in and of itself does not constitute a fact check. Accusing a doctor of inventing a 10-year-old rape victim is an extraordinary claim, and you should have a lot of evidence to back a claim like that up, let alone accusing another newspaper of not doing their due diligence.

And maybe worst of all, all this did was turn this young girl int exactly what her mother was presumably trying to avoid: making her a political football in a broader media free-for-all. And in the post Roe V. Wade landscape, this girl will certainly not be the last young victim of such awful and tragic circumstances (in 2020, 52 Ohioans under the age of 15 received an abortion, according to the Columbus Dispatch. That’s about one per week). Help is available to these girls, but the louder people doubt or dismiss these stories, the less likely they are to actually ask for it.

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