Former St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer says jail series is inaccurate

Eddie Roth, St. Louis’ Director of Operations and former Post-Dispatch editorial writer, is using his Facebook page to criticize a recent Post-Dispatch series, “Jailed by Mistake.”

Roth maintains the series “is premised on ‘facts’ whose accuracy the reporters admittedly have been unable to verify, and that it distorts statements in ways that create a patently false and deeply unfair impression of official indifference.”

Post-Dispatch editor Gilbert Bailon said in a written statement to GJR that Roth was not a neutral observer and that the important thing was the findings of the investigation.  He wrote:

“The focus should be on the key findings of the Post-Dispatch investigation that found that people were being repeatedly arrested and jailed by mistake in St. Louis despite safeguards that could have prevented it. If new facts or information exists that informs the 100 cases we found, those should be brought forward by public officials, some of whom were aware of details of our research before it was published Oct. 27.”

The Post-Dispatch’s Jennifer Mann and Robert Patrick reported they had “identified 100 people arrested in error over the past seven years. Collectively, they spent more than 2,000 days in jail — an average of about three weeks each.”

Roth maintains in his posts that half of the 100 cases are older that five years and that only about a dozen occurred in the past two years.

Separately, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce wrote in an email to GJR “that a thorough look at about 10 percent of the cases in their (Post-Dispatch’s) published database…” showed that the “days are overstated by approximately 550. I assume there are similar errors in the other 90 percent of their database which would bring the days lower still.”

Joyce said, “even one wrongful arrest is too many,” adding, “this is an important topic even though it was poorly handled by the Post. While ethical and legal considerations prevent me from discussing in detail many of the cases, I can tell you that, overall, we found:

  •  “In at least one instance, a person the St. Louis Post-Dispatch claimed was wrongfully jailed was not arrested.
  •  “The majority of those arrested were initially arrested on their own charges.
  •   “The majority of those arrested to which the Post attributed time served on another person’s charges served jail time as the result of their own charges.
  •   “Many instances where the number of days the St. Louis Post-Dispatch claimed a person spent in jail were inflated.”

One example Joyce cited was that of Antonio Arnold.  The Post-Dispatch maintained Arnold was wrongfully arrested on a warrant for his brother Leonard Arnold and spent 211 days in jail. But Joyce found he spent 134 days in jail, all of it on his probation violation.

Joyce wrote she thought the “errors are due to the fact that the Post reporters simply do not have the ability to verify the information they publish as fact.”

Roth highlighted another mistake on his Facebook page.  He wrote that research by Joyce’s office showed that Cortez Cooper had never been wrongfully jailed, as the stories stated.

The Post-Dispatch reported that Cortez Cooper “spent more than a month in jail because his brother, Cecil Cooper, used his name during a drug arrest before being released pending charges… An email alerting officials to a possible mistake was sent out – but not heeded – two months before Cortez was mistakenly charged.”

But the Circuit Attorney found, after publication, there was no evidence Cortez Cooper was jailed.  Cecil Cooper used Cortez’s name, but it was Cecil who was in prison, Roth reported.  Cecil Cooper was confined under Cortez’s name, but it was the right person in jail, investigators concluded.

Roth makes the point that social media, such as Facebook, enable people to challenge the accuracy of news reports in ways they once could not.  He wrote:

“’We stand by our story.’ With those five words, news editors used to be able to dismiss challenges to accuracy & fairness. End of discussion. Not so much, anymore. Social media make it harder for traditional news organizations to ignore legitimate grievances about a news story, and make it more likely that they will be attentive and responsive to problems and mistakes in their reports and coverage. This strengthens journalism.”

In his latest post on Thursday, Roth criticizes the Post-Dispatch and Bailon for not having a published corrections policy, like the one in The New York Times.  Roth writes that when he asked for the paper’s corrections policy, Bailon wrote back:

“We do not publish a public corrections policy on the website or in print. Concerns from readers about possible corrections or clarifications are brought to the attention to the newsroom editors. The originating desk involved investigates the matters and confers with top management about the issues and whether to publish a correction.”

Bailon said in his statement that Roth’s “railing against our corrections policy is a distraction and irrelevant. Under longstanding policies, we issue corrections based on fact-based reporting and new information.

“We stand ready to acknowledge and correct any factual inaccuracies in our reporting if the Mayor’s Office, Circuit Attorney’s Office or the St. Louis Police Department can document how the records on which our reporting was based were wrong.”

Editor’s note: William H. Freivogel, publisher of GJR, is a former Post-Dispatch reporter and editor and a colleague of Roth’s and Post-Dispatch reporters and editors involved in the series.


Post-Dispatch series:

Editor Gilbert Bailon’s column on series:


Editor’s note: William H. Freivogel, publisher of GJR, is a former Post-Dispatch reporter and editor and a colleague of Roth’s and Post-Dispatch reporters and editors involved in the series.

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