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Michael and Jennifer Vincelli's son Nicholas died shortly after birth in Women's College Hospital. Nicholas was the last baby born in the hospital, a fact that was corrected by the Star's public editor. (Credit: Yvonne Berg, the Toronto Star)

The Toronto Star’s public editor, Kathy English, explained in her Sept. 25 column that “newspapers have a duty to report the painful truth.”

Reminding that journalists are obligated to minimize harm – but not to do no harm, English criticized the Star’s article on the closing of the Women’s College Hospital on Sept. 12.

The Sept. 13 Star article told of the “last baby born at Women’s College before its maternity ward was moved to Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.”  But, it was wrong.  The article’s lead reported that  “At 12:08 a.m. Sunday, Megan Walhelm took in her first breath, and then let out the last newborn cry that the Women’s College Hospital maternity ward will ever hear.”

But, Nicholas Vincelli was the last baby born – at 3:27 a.m. He also died shortly after birth.  “Nicholas took his first breath, and then let out the last newborn cry that the Women’s College Hospital maternity ward will ever hear,” his parents MIchael and Jennifer Vincelli wrote in an e-mail to English.

English reported that health reporter Joseph Hall, who reported the story, knew of Nicholas’s birth and death but didn’t write about it because the hospital asked him not to.  According to English, the hospital’s obstetrics and gynecology chief, Dr. Jennifer Blake, asked Hall to not report on Nicholas because she “did not want to impose on the Vincelli family in their grief.”

“We were keen to get the last baby born and the doctor told me the last baby was not going to make it and asked me not to write about it,” Hall said. “I didn’t want to get into reporting on a dead baby and thought the parents had suffered enough without having everyone in the city knowing what had happened to their baby.”

“At the time of the move, the family was grieving acutely and we did not think it would be appropriate to approach them to gauge their interest in speaking to the media,” English reported Blake said.  While English called Blake’s reasoning “humane and understandable,” she explained Hall still should have reported Nicholas’ death.

“In agreeing to withhold facts and reporting something else he knew to be untrue, Hall’s report fell short of journalism’s first obligation to the truth,” English opined.

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“If journalists agreed to withhold the facts anytime anyone asked because it might cause distress, there would be far fewer painful truths reported. But the purpose of journalism would not be served,” English added.

According to English, Hall didn’t talk about the issue with his editors and assumed the baby didn’t cry – so he wrote around Nicholas by referencing the last cry.  But, Michael Vincelli confirmed to English that Nicholas did cry.

While the Vincellis “appreciate Blake’s efforts to shield them from the media spotlight,” English reported that the couple feels obliged to Nicholas to make sure it’s known he was in fact the last baby born at the hospital.

“We’re so happy that we got to meet our son and we’re so proud that our son was born at Women’s College Hospital and that he was the last baby to be born there,” Michael Vincelli is quoted as telling English.  “It’s part of Nicholas’s legacy.”

As of this posting no correction was appended to Hall’s article.  English wrote in an e-mail to StinkyJournalism that she didn’t have the opportunity to “arrange the corrective note” over the weekend, but that she was sending it when she wrote to us Sept. 29.  “I expect it will be published in the next little bit,” English wrote, adding that the correction will feature a link to her public editor column.

English told iMediaEthics that the correction will read that “Note: Megan Walhelm was not the last baby to be born at Women’s College Hospital. As this article  explains, Nicholas Michael Vincelli was the last baby born at Women’s College. Nicholas, passed away shortly after his birth due to heart and lung complications.”

 

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