Marco Vernaschi's Pulitzer Center-funded project on child sacrifice has generated fierce criticism, directed both toward Vernaschi's reporting methods and ethics and the role of the Pulitzer Center in backing this project. The issues raised are serious and we address them here.
Vernaschi reported the story over the course of two months, in January and February. The London Sunday Times printed one photograph from the project this past Sunday and on Friday we posted three articles by Vernaschi on Untold Stories.
The first, "Uganda: Child Sacrifice Not a Cultural Issue," reports on the increasing number of children mutilated and murdered in Uganda at the behest of fraudulent faith healers, and the efforts of police and local NGOs to combat the crime. The post also includes details of a three-year-old name Mukisa whose genitals were removed as part of a ritual sacrifice.
The second post, "Babirye: The Girl from Katugwe," is equally horrific: the murder of 10-year-old Margaret Babirye Nankya**, whose arm and leg were cut off and her head sliced open. In this case a "traditional healer" was among three suspects arrested.
The third post, "The Man Behind RACHO," is a profile of Paul Odida, a former "healer" himself who now leads a Ugandan NGO aimed at eradicating child sacrifice. He and his associates were also key collaborators in Vernaschi's investigation.
Vernaschi's photographs are gut-wrenching, black-and-white portraits of pain and abuse. We share his belief that photography can play a powerful role in mobilizing public opinion, in Uganda and beyond, to stop this abuse. But we now believe —and Vernaschi agrees—that we were wrong in the way we handled the cases of Mukisa and Babirye.
The Untold Stories post on Mukisa included a photo showing Mukisa and his father. It also included a link to a photo gallery on Vernaschi's own site, however, with a full-frontal photo of the child showing the extent of his wounds. The photo was taken with the permission of Mukisa's parents, who hoped both to expose the crime he had suffered and to enlist support for the lengthy medical procedures he must face. Critics have said these reasons do not justify violating the rights of a child to dignity and privacy. We agree. Vernaschi has removed this photo from his website and has pledged not to distribute it further.
The photos of Babirye are just as problematic. Vernaschi says they were taken on the day after her murder, a few hours after her burial. As Vernaschi recounts on Untold Stories, he met with Babirye's mother and a village elder and asked that the body be exhumed so that he would have visual evidence of the abuse she had suffered. The family agreed. Afterward, as he was leaving, Vernaschi says that the village elder asked for a "contribution" and the mother asked for money to hire a lawyer. He gave them what he had, Vernaschi later said, leaving the family with about $70.
In the blog post Vernaschi makes clear his anguish over the decision he made, and also his belief that showing the enormity of this crime would galvanize public opinion and bring an end to child sacrifice. We believe he honestly held that view. We believe he gave the money out of compassion, in the emotion of the moment, and not as payment for exhuming Babirye's body.
Yet we also believe, and Vernaschi agrees, that it was wrong to ask that the body be exhumed. It showed disrespect for the dead, and forced a grieving family to suffer anew. It also had the effect of focusing attention on the actions of one journalist, as opposed to a horrific crime that needs to be exposed.
We regret any damage that may have been caused. We intend to continue this project, documenting the phenomenon of child sacrifice, but in so doing we we will redouble our efforts to authenticate every claim and to insure the privacy rights of individual victims.
In the course of this project so far we have learned some painful, useful lessons about the ambiguous intersections of free-lance journalism, blog posts and articles that are published or broadcast.
The Pulitzer Center has worked with dozens of journalists over the past four years, funding travel and providing initial editorial guidance but then partnering with established news-media outlets around the world. This has provided multiple layers of editorial review and control, with the goal of insuring compliance with the highest editorial standards.
The growth of the Pulitzer Center has resulted in our website becoming a significant outlet itself, especially our Untold Stories blog that features reports from the field by our journalist grantees. Given the increasing prominence of this platform we will be making our own standards more explicit, as a guide to our journalists and guarantee to readers.
**Update 04/25/10: We have updated the post to reflect the spelling of Babirye's full name according to the spelling used by Ugandan newspapers.