That Crying Child With Leg Casts

That recent A-1 New York Times photo of the crying baby in leg casts that stopped me (and, not surprisingly, many Times readers) in my tracks? It seems we were misinformed. Per the Times’ correction today:

After the picture and an accompanying article that also described the injuries were published, The New York Times took the boy to a medical clinic in Harare for help. When the casts were removed, medical workers there discovered the boy had club feet. Doctors said on Monday that X-rays of the baby’s legs showed no evidence of bone fractures.

The mother subsequently admitted that she had exaggerated injuries she said had been sustained by the boy during an attack by governing party militia. In multiple interviews, she said that youths backing President Robert Mugabe had thrown her son to the concrete floor — and she still says that event did occur.

The owner of the house where she and the baby were staying confirmed that marauding youths from the governing party had attacked the house. He said he believed the baby had been thrown to the floor during the attack, but the owner was in a different room and did not witness it firsthand. The landlord, other lodgers, neighbors and opposition supporters also confirmed that the mother had been singled out because her husband was an opposition member.

The mother, however, later told The Times that the boy had been wearing casts even at the time of the attack, as part of a treatment he had received for his club feet at a different medical facility. She said she misrepresented the boy’s injuries to generate help because she could not afford corrective surgery for the boy.

Of course we want accurate information. And this underscores the challenges of reporting in any place when confronted with human desperation — throw in unstable, dangerous conditions and the task of confirming are we seeing what we think we are seeing? have we fact checked — can we— a frantic mother’s story? grows more difficult still. (I was personally fascinated to learn that the Times didn’t take the picture and move on, but took the boy to a clinic for help. Had they not done so, would we ever have known that the image was not exactly as the caption described?)

I haven’t stopped thinking, from time to time, about this image (and then, in turn, about what is happening in Zimbabwe — news of which can be hard to come by here). And I still will.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.