One of the more difficult adjustments I had to make decades ago when first coming to work in these parts was the proliferation of identical names that required special care when writing volatile stories. It is for this reason that newspapers, especially when writing about people accused of crimes, use every conceivable scrap of information for differentiating people. Addresses, ages, middle initials, all can go a long way toward keeping people from giving the stink eye to their neighbor whose only crime may be that they share a name with someone accused of some horrendous crime.
As the story circulated of a substitute teacher in Houma being accused of sex crimes with juveniles – dramatic in and of itself certainly – another drama unfolded.
The accused was identified in a Houma Police Department press release as 30-year-old Heidi Verret. A check of the jail log, however, revealed nobody by that name so I had to make some calls. The woman was actually booked under the name Heidi Domangue. As part of the diligence reporters are supposed to display, I did some internet searches and found a Heidi Domangue about whom much has been written in the past, an artist and part-time school teacher. I would, if able to verify that this was the same person, have included some of this information in my online story. But before doing anything like that I needed to check further. Through the voodoo that is modern journalism I found the mother of Heidi Domangue the artist and spoke with her. A few sentences into the conversation it was clear that this Heidi Domangue was not the aforementioned person now facing criminal charges.
That both teach and that one has a rather high public profile caused me to play it safe, and since the police had already named the offending Heidi as a Verret – her married name – I would keep it that way in the story.
A colleague at another newspaper did not have the benefit of the knowledge I had accumulated. After determining that Heidi the suspect was booked as Heidi Domangue, she chose to use the booking information.
Once that story appeared there was hell to pay. Friends and relatives of Heidi the artist jumped to her defense. Heidi the artist herself somehow confused the stories and began accusing me online of journalistic malpractice. We straightened it all out and she apologized, and I am grateful for that. My previously mentioned colleague, however, fell under attack.
A lot of the ill feeling was due to an out-of-town blogger – who probably can’t pronounce Domangue – doing his own story. He pulled pictures of Heidi the artist from the internet and so even further mistakenly identified her as the Heidi accused of sex with underage boys. That really got the pot boiling, along with multiple instances of the telephone game appearing on Facebook and resulting additional private pen posts.
So we end up with a woman who did no wrong mistaken, at least for a while, with one who is accused, a reporter who did the right thing accused of the wrong thing, and another reporter who really didn’t do anything wrong either being forced to defend herself in a very hostile online environment. The blog guy finally took down the pictures but the damage was done.
I can’t speak for how anyone else engages in their practice of journalism – and I use that term loosely when including bloggers. I know what we do here at The Times, and I am proud of our record.
I also know that when we do get it wrong – which is certainly never intentional – we try to fix our mistakes. In this case there was no mistake for me to fix. Our story that runs today on the teen sex investigation includes Heidi the substitute teacher’s married name for purposes of clarity.
But it is also a good time to let readers know that if you see us actually make a mistake please let us know. We are dedicated to keeping the record straight. At the end of the day all we have is your trust, and we aim to keep earning it.