The truth is hard to endure: A gunman slaughters 19 children and two teachers inside an elementary school classroom. Law enforcement officers stand in the hallway, but don’t go in to confront him.
The truth is hard to absorb: A 10-year-old girl is pregnant after being raped. Because she lives in Ohio, where abortions are heavily restricted, she travels to an Indiana doctor to have an abortion.
Our job is to report the truth.
Three of our local newsrooms, all part of the USA TODAY Network, took on the hard truth this week.
A Texas school shooting; a video difficult to watch
On Tuesday, the Austin American-Statesman obtained and published video of the law enforcement response to the Uvalde school shooting, both the full video and an edited four-minute version.
For seven weeks, since the beginning of this tragedy, stories have changed. Early in the investigation, the governor of Texas said officers had been “running toward the gunfire” to save lives. Since then, narratives have been proven false and media requests for the public records in the investigation have been delayed or denied.
Reporter Tony Plohetski obtained the video and the Statesman published the truth.
In it, you see the shooter enter the building. You hear the gunshots as he begins killing. Within three minutes, you see officers approach the classroom. Then, as gunfire begins again, you see them running – not toward the gunfire, but away from it. They stayed away for more than an hour.
It’s important to note what’s not in the video. Our editors removed the audio of the children who can be heard in the classroom. We blurred the face of one child who walks down the hallway. The video does not show any child or the inside of any classroom.
What good comes from publishing it?
Accountability. Transparency. And hopefully, change.
We have a saying in journalism: Show, don’t tell. Nothing shows the failure of law enforcement more clearly than the actual video of the response.
Officers were not outgunned: In the video, many arrive with assault rifles of their own, with body armor, then with helmets, even tactical shields.
Officers did not rush toward the classroom: One even casually grabs hand sanitizer from a dispenser on the wall while waiting.
The video, the truth, is difficult to watch. For 77 minutes, you don’t just see the failed response, you can feel it.
As soon as the Statesman published the video, some criticized the decision to publish as “thoughtless about the parents who have to relive this.”
Do we care about the families of the Uvalde victims? Of course we do. We care so much that we want the public to see and understand – and feel – this extraordinary failure, in hopes it never happens again.
Austin American-Statesman editor Manny Garcia points out that the video is one piece of a struggle over something much bigger: the fight for records and recordings that will tell the whole truth about Uvalde.
“The truth always wins,” he wrote in a column this week, “maybe not on our clock, but the truth always prevails. And that is the reason that we publish. …”
An Ohio rape case; an Indiana abortion
In Ohio, some people simply couldn’t believe the truth.
On July 1, the Indianapolis Star reported that Dr. Caitlin Bernard said she cared for a 10-year-old girl seeking an abortion, sent to her from another doctor in Ohio. The girl was six weeks and three days pregnant, according to Bernard.
Ohio law outlaws abortion after “cardiac activity” is detected, usually around six weeks. There are exceptions if the mother’s life is at risk. There are no exceptions for rape or incest. You could reasonably argue pregnancy is a health risk to a 10-year-old; nevertheless, she was sent across state lines to Indiana.
The story spread right away. After President Joe Biden referenced the girl in remarks last Friday, the story went international.
But a lot of people suggested it wasn’t true. It’s fine to ask questions about news reporting. But some questioned the account because the girl wasn’t identified (does anyone think a 10-year-old rape victim should be identified?). One suggested the idea of an abortion at that young age was “pretty rare” (in 2020, there were more than 50 abortions in girls 15 and under in Ohio – is that rare?).
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost – the top prosecutor – went even further.
“Every day that goes by the more likely that this is a fabrication,” he said. “I know the cops and prosecutors in this state. There’s not one of them that wouldn’t be turning over every rock, looking for this guy and they would have charged him.”
But the Star’s story was the truth.
Columbus police were made aware of the girl’s pregnancy through a confidential referral by Franklin County Children Services that was made by her mother on June 22. Columbus Dispatch public safety reporter Bethany Bruner knows how the system works. Each day, the Franklin County Municipal Court Clerk website posts a list of arraignments. On Wednesday it showed “rape of a child under 13.” She pulled the file. The victim was 10.
She went to the arraignment. She was the only reporter there when a detective testified under oath that the girl was taken to Indiana for an abortion.
The Dispatch soon reported that Gerson Fuentes, 27, had been arrested and had confessed to raping the child at least twice.
It was the case in which Yost – the state’s top prosecutor – could not find “a damn scintilla of evidence.”
Yet Bruner was right there in the courtroom when Fuentes was arraigned. The truth was right there on the county clerk’s website.
Our journalists in Indiana had the source who revealed a horrific case. Our journalists in Ohio had the reporting expertise to identify the suspect.
Here is the truth: The world is a dangerous place for a vulnerable 10-year-old girl.
The truth about children, pregnancy and abortion
Of all the claims made by others about this story, one of the most maddening and dangerous is to call the situation “pretty rare” or “unlikely.”
Children can start menstruation as young as 8. A 2020 study found the median age for the start of menstruation has fallen from 12.1 in 1995 to 11.9 in 2013-2017.
Since May 9, there have been at least 50 police reports of rape or sexual abuse involving a girl 15 years or younger in Columbus, according to an IndyStar analysis. About 7 of 10 sexual assaults go unreported, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
And in 2020, there were 52 abortions among children 15 or younger in Ohio, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
The year before that, the number was 63. The year before that, 54. Before that, 61. And before that, 76. More than one child every week. That is a number we can feel.
And so, when communities see police fail their children and are promised accountability – yet the stories shift and the investigative records are withheld – we find the truth.
When commentators and politicians scoff at stories of child rape as “another lie” or “not true” we find the truth.
Find it, and report it. With great deliberation, concern and care.
That is our job.
Backstory:Covering mass shootings has become routine – and endless. But it doesn’t get easier.
Backstory:My mom had an abortion almost 50 years ago. My family is finally talking about her decision.
Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY and president of the Gannett news division. The Backstory offers insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.
Reach Carroll at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @nicole_carroll. Thank you for supporting our journalism. Subscribe here.
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