Why Australia's media bought the 'Irish babies in the septic tank' story
The world was outraged at news of the bodies of 800 Irish babies had been found in a septic tank. As it turns out, no bodies have been found at all. Dr Steven Knowlton, professor of journalism at Dublin City University, explains why we were so eager to believe this story.
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“Bodies of 800 children, long-dead, found in septic tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers” was the headline in The Sydney Morning Herald. “Almost 800 ‘forgotten’ Irish children dumped in septic tank mass grave at Catholic home,” said the ABC. “796 Irish orphans in a septic tank tomb,” pronounced The Australian. The problem? There is little evidence that there are any bodies in that infamous septic tank at all.
Why is the story being reported everywhere if it might not be true? As many a news reporter has learned with chagrin and horror, it is often the headlines and photo captions that do you in — those bits of the newspaper you did not write but are in close proximity to the story you did.
Two weeks ago, The Irish Mail on Sunday, a British tabloid with an Irish edition, ran a story that fit into the Irish national zeitgeist so well that it instantly broke through all the other scandals, pieces on governmental malfeasance and analyses of economic woe that make up the front page of many an Irish paper. The headline read: “Mass septic tank grave ‘containing the skeletons of 800 babies’ at site of Irish home for unmarried mothers”. The caption under a grainy, black-and-white picture of a Dickensian-looking children’s home was clearer still: “The bodies of 796 babies and children were found next to the former children’s home at Tuam, Co. Galway.”
The story itself is a bit more nuanced. The intro begins: “The bodies of nearly 800 babies are believed to have been interred in a concrete tank beside a former home for unmarried mothers.” Note the “are believed”. The second paragraph begins, “The dead babies are thought …” and the third starts, “It is suspected …”.
The story hit the world’s wires almost instantly. The sober-enough Washington Postran a story under the headline: “Bodies of 800 babies, long-dead, found in septic tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers” (the SMH republished the story under a copy-sharing arrangement). But the story itself in the Post was hedged a bit. The story is given a feature treatment, so the reader is well into the third paragraph before learning the fate of the 800 children “… has perhaps now emerged: Their bodies were piled into a massive septic tank sitting in the back of the structure and forgotten, with neither gravestones nor coffins.” Perhaps.
All these stories are based upon research by a local historian named Caroline Corless, who has been researching the home for years. In her painstaking work, she has secured death records for 796 children who were in the home for unwed mothers, but for whom she could find no burial records.
Add to this an account from a local man, now middle-aged, that as a small boy he and a friend saw bones in the long-unused septic tank when they broke up the concrete slab covering it. Corless surmises that the babies are buried here or somewhere nearby.
In television interviews since the story broke, she has maintained that her goal all along has been to get a commemorative plaque placed on the site listing the names of the children who died. She does not want the site opened up and is adamant that it does not matter if there are 10 children buried there or 200. Or 796.
It is not possible from this remove to know exactly what she told the Mail on Sunday or what she told The Washington Post. But it is pretty clear that she did not say she had found skeletons of 800 children. The stories about the matter said she had unearthed records, not that she had unearthed bones. Headlines committed the worst of the hyperbole.
But whether adequately hedged or not, the stories themselves have had remarkable legs over the past two weeks. Aside from technology, which enables stories to whiz about the globe in seconds, this story resonates because it fits so well within what we think we already know. For several years now, Ireland has been rocked by scandal after scandal involving the abuse of children — the mass grave-in-a-septic-tank fits the narrative. It rings true, whether it is strictly factual or not. This larger story makes sense. Irish papers and airwaves have been filled with reactions: pleas for caution from Catholic Church leaders, accounts from citizens who were housed in other mother-and-baby homes, Irish men and women anguished at the latest Church-based outrage.
Journalists are trained — indeed, I have trained my own students for a quarter-century — to put stories onto a familiar arc if the facts allow. Effective storytelling is much, much easier if the readers already have a context into which to put what you are telling them. And make no mistake: however you define the role of journalism — and I ascribe to it the lofty goal of nothing less than making democracy possible — effective storytelling is utterly essential to the job.
Headlines and picture captions that overreach are fairly straightforward — they should not happen, although the concision they require is much, much harder than casual readers surmise. It is a terrible shame that papers have, for budgetary reasons, cut back on their subediting staff in recent years. News outlets have long needed more good subs, not fewer. But that is the easy part of this story to understand.
The stories themselves are harder to suss out. There are clear signs that the initial reporting did not challenge the historian enough, particularly since it is clear from what she has said that she is deeply involved in the story. It may not matter to her if there are eight or 800 unmarked graves at the site, but to the journalist preparing a story, it matters a great deal. Eight, in fact, is not much of a story. Eight hundred is. And “How do you know?” would have been a really, really good question to ask, in this story as in all stories. Instead, reporters — and then their readers — latched onto this story narrative because it fit so well into what they already knew, or thought they did.
This story is far from over, at least in Ireland. The government will almost certainly initiate a lengthy investigation into the mother-and-baby home in Galway, and probably into others around the country as well. This will take many months, if not years, and cost millions. It will lead to an exhausting, and perhaps exhaustive, report into the matter. It is not yet clear whether anyone will ever put a shovel in the ground on the site of the long-closed home and find out what’s down there.