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Published: Sunday, 9/2/2012

COMMENTARY

Blade owed public full coverage of kidney blunder

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

When reporters do their jobs well, it frequently makes them unpopular. Newspapers are largely in the business of exposing what is wrong in society and alerting the public about it.

That’s why the Washington Post exposed the corruption in the Nixon administration known as the Watergate scandal and why The Blade exposed the “Coingate” investment scandal that rocked Ohio government and sent Tom Noe to prison a few years ago.

That’s also why this newspaper last week highlighted an almost unbelievable screw-up at the University of Toledo Medical Center that occurred last month. A woman was in desperate need of a new kidney.

The most perfect match in such cases is usually a sibling. Her brother donated a kidney, the removal of which is a major operation in itself. But the kidney wasn’t transplanted into his sister.

A nurse threw it into the trash. By the time that staggering mistake was discovered, it was too late to save the kidney.

That was a major story, if only because last year, 4,711 Americans died while waiting for a kidney transplant. The Blade talked to experts across the nation who said this was unheard of.

Yet many readers were offended because The Blade named the operating room nurses who were evidently responsible for this life-threatening error, Melanie Lemay and Judith Moore.

Both were immediately suspended with pay. Later, Edwin Hall, the hospital’s administrator of surgical services, also was suspended, and a multiagency investigation into the mistake was started.

Some readers — many of them nurses — felt naming those evidently responsible was outrageous. “For The Blade to pinpoint and name the nurses is this article was beyond belief,” one wrote.

“Why does this newspaper feel compelled to publish the names of the nurses, who will surely suffer from their error?" a man asked.

Your ombudsman is frankly surprised at this reaction.

The newspaper didn’t “pinpoint” which nurses were involved, though in my opinion, it would have been entirely justified in launching an investigation to do so. The hospital itself announced the suspensions and the names of those being suspended.

The Blade did not say they were guilty of anything — only that they had been suspended and an investigation launched.

The newspaper also gave the nurses and the suspended administrator repeated opportunities to comment, as well as the surgeon who removed the kidney, Dr. Michael Rees.

None of them chose to do so; no legal action has been taken against the surgeon. In your ombudsman‘s opinion, the newspaper would have been unethical not to print the names.

How would you feel if you were the man who donated a kidney to save his sister, a painful and serious operation in itself?

Imagine waking up and finding that your kidney had been thrown in the trash. Would you want to know who was responsible?

What if you had to go to the University of Toledo Medical Center for a transplant? Wouldn‘t you want to know how this accident happened and who was responsible for it?

The Blade owes its readers full coverage of this tragic event and the results of the investigation that follows. This may cause some people emotional distress. But so did destroying the kidney.

In this case, your ombudsman feels there is a public right and need to know. If the nurses should happen to be cleared, it is the paper’s duty to fully inform the public about this too.

———

Romney coverage overboard? Reader Tom McLean took exception to the front page headline on Aug. 26:

“Romney dredges up ‘birther’ controversy.”

“I’m not a Romney man, but loaded words like that should not appear in a news headline," Mr. McLean argued. He is indeed right that news headlines — and stories — should avoid “loaded” words.

Except that there are very few accidents in political campaigns. There is all sorts of misinformation and outright lies about President Obama’s birth certificate on the Internet and sometimes in print.

 Millions believe that there is some question about where he was born. In fact, there is not. Former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican who strongly opposes President Obama, said flatly that she has examined the records and there is no question that he was in fact born at Kapi’olani Hospital in Honolulu.

Nevertheless, various people, including developer Donald Trump, continue to raise questions about the President’s birthplace, perhaps to weaken public faith in his legitimacy.

Though he may have been kidding, Mr. Romney told a Michigan crowd Aug. 24, “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate.” To be sure, the GOP nominee has never said he believed there was any question about the President’s birth.

However, his statement was, intentional or not, clearly one the so-called “birthers” could use to reawaken old doubts.

Your ombudsman does think it would have been better to end this headline with a question mark.

 But the voters would be better served if the candidates concentrated on the real issues and stopped mentioning the words “birth certificate” in this presidential campaign.

———

James Fuller of Sylvania is unhappy that The Blade still refers to the University of Toledo Medical Center as “the former Medical College of Ohio” and vows to send me a clipping of every article that does so, presumably until the newspaper changes it style.

He may, as a result, end up helping trim the U.S. Postal Service deficit. The editor-in-chief of The Blade thinks it is important to remind readers of the hospital’s heritage. Others may disagree.

But this isn’t a question of accuracy or fairness, which defines the limits of an ombudsman’s job.

Anyone who has a concern about fairness or accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/o The Blade; 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, 43660, or at my Detroit office: 563 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; call me, at 1-888-746-8610, or email me at OMBLADE@aol.com. I cannot promise to address every question in the newspaper, but I do promise that everyone who contacts me with a serious question will get a personal reply. Reminder, however: If you don’t leave me an email address or a phone number, I have no way to get in touch with you.

Jack Lessenberry is a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.



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