News outlets from Newsweek to MarketWatch claimed Pres. Donald Trump’s administration would make Puerto Ricans who evacuated after Hurricane Maria pay the government the full fare of a flight to leave the island. But, the story was wrong. Just as bad, at least three news outlets that reported the bogus information didn’t post transparent corrections. Instead, they vaguely “updated” their inaccurate stories.
What happened? The error appears to have started when business news site MarketWatch reported, based on a State Department website page, the claim that Puerto Ricans evacuating have to pay full-fare to leave the island and must sign promissory notes. MarketWatch‘s reporting was inaccurate, though, because that applied to international evacuations. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert tweeted to both The Hill and MarketWatch to flag that the department wasn’t in charge of evacuations from Puerto Rico. “@StateDept is NOT evacuating americans from #puertorico – PR is a US territory. State only handles international evacs @thehill @MarketWatch,” she wrote.
— Heather Nauert (@statedeptspox) September 28, 2017
It is correct that the U.S. State Department expects U.S. citizens to pay back a commercial fare when they are evacuated from a foreign country. But, Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. As such, the State Department isn’t involved when a U.S. citizen needs to be evacuated from a U.S. territory, the department explained. So when MarketWatch reported on the State Department promissory notes issue, the site wrongly linked a real policy to a non-applicable situation — evacuations of Americans from American territory.
Because of the error in the media, the State Department had to allocate staff to correct the error and undo the damage. “Our highest priority is the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas. Part of that effort is to keep U.S. citizens informed while traveling overseas,” State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs press officer Kevin Bosnahan told iMediaEthics. “We spent a great deal of time clarifying that the Department of State was not evacuating U.S. citizens – or charging for evacuations – from Puerto Rico. The Department of State oversees evacuation for U.S. citizens, when needed, from foreign countries. Federal relief efforts for Puerto Rico, as a U.S. territory, are overseen by FEMA.”
Those promissory notes are “required by law” when the State Department has to evacuate “private U.S. citizens from foreign countries,” Bosnahan explained. “We only seek reimbursement for the cost of reasonable commercial airfare,” he added. “This has been the practice of the U.S. government since 1956. We can assure you that no one is denied our assistance because they cannot produce a checkbook or credit card.”
MarketWatch could have avoided the error by contacting the State Department before publication for fact checking, but it didn’t, the department confirmed to iMediaEthics. From there, the error snowballed because The Hill and then Newsweek reported the same misinformation. After publication, all three outlets fixed their inaccurate stories, updating and rewriting the stories.
However, MarketWatch, Newsweek and The Hill didn’t post corrections; they merely posted updates to their stories that didn’t account for what went wrong. iMediaEthics contacted editors at all three outlets to ask how the errors occurred, why the articles don’t carry transparent corrections and when, if at all, they contacted the State Department for fact checking.
“Mark Cuban, Pitbull step up, but Trump administration making Puerto Rico evacuees pay: Evacuees on U.S.-government-coordinated transport must sign IOUs for the cost — and give up their passports as collateral.”
The headline has been slightly tweaked to replace “Puerto Rico evacuees” with “some hurricane evacuees.” The article carries an update, not a correction, stating, “Update: The U.S. State Department provided MarketWatch with a response to this article, providing clarity on which evacuees are required to pay for their transport.”
The article also now includes comments from the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.
Newsweek‘s original Sept. 28 story by Greg Price isn’t available through any cache that iMediaEtihcs can find. The update at the bottom of the current article states, “An earlier version of this story was based on a faulty report about Trump administration policy.” That, however, doesn’t admit any Newsweek error. The story was updated at the top to say “Trump’s administration will not require impoverished Puerto Rican hurricane victims to pay full price for evacuation flights — contradicting earlier reports that it would maintain the pricey flight policy for the U.S. territory.”
“The Trump administration is reportedly forcing evacuees from Puerto Rico to sign promissory notes ensuring full repayment for transportation costs and is keeping evacuees’ passports as collateral.”
The original story was headlined, “Trump administration forcing Puerto Rico evacuees to pay for transportation: report.” The new story is headlined, “State not requiring Puerto Rico evacuees to pay transportation costs”.
Despite the rewrite of the article which corrected it completely, The Hill‘s story carries no correction. It only says that it was updated and at what time. Within the text of the story, The Hill noted it “posted a story based on” MarketWatch‘s report claiming Puerto Rican evacuees needed to sign promissory notes.