A Tennessee boy died in the arms of a local man portraying Santa Claus during a hospital visit. See Example( s )
Collected via e-mail, December 2016
A heartwarming story set in an East Tennessee hospital received international coverage — but without confirmation of key details.
Eric Schmitt-Matzen’s account of an encounter with a 5-year-old boy was first printed by the Knoxville News-Sentinel on 12 December 2016, before it was picked up by USA Today. Schmitt-Matzen himself did interviews with both local and international outlets.
According to the story by columnist Sam Venable, Schmitt-Matzen — a mechanical engineer who moonlights as a part-time Santa Claus — was contacted by a friend working as a nurse at a local hospital and asked to visit the boy. Schmitt-Matzen arrived moments before the boy’s death, having just enough time to hold him in his final moments.
Venable told us on 13 December 2016 that Schmitt-Matzen has refused to identify the family, the hospital or the nurse involved in the story in follow-up interviews. However, Schmitt-Matzen did backtrack from his initial claim that he reached the facility in 15 minutes, saying instead that it was in East Tennessee.
According to Venable, the News-Sentinel is still investigating Schmitt-Matzen’s claim:
Certainly, if we are in error on this, we want to be the very first to come out and say — if there is an error — it’s on us.
We contacted several hospitals in Knoxville for comment. Both the East Tennessee Children’s Hospital and the University of Tennessee Medical Center confirmed that a visit like the one Schmitt-Matzen described did not occur at their respective facilities. Tennova Healthcare, which manages several hospitals in the area, told the Washington Post that it did not take place at any affiliated facility.
It is unclear whether a scenario like the one Schmitt-Matzen described constitutes privacy violations for the patient and his family under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. We contacted both the Tennessee Department of Health and the federal Department of Health and Human Services seeking comment.
On 14 December 2016, the News-Sentinel released a separate story, attributed to Venable and Editor Jack McElroy, saying they could not verify the story:
The News Sentinel cannot establish that Schmitt-Matzen’s account is inaccurate, but more importantly, ongoing reporting cannot establish that it is accurate.
Therefore, because the story does not meet the newspaper’s standards of verification, we are no longer standing by the veracity of Schmitt-Matzen’s account.
Another Knoxville news outlet, WBIR-TV, posted a story a day later saying that it “verified several critical details of this story” while agreeing not to publish them.
The station’s story cited interviews with Schmitt-Matzen’s wife, Sharon Schmitt-Matzen, as well as a friend identified as Daniel Cunningham. It also cited — but did not quote — text messages sent from Eric Schmitt-Matzen’s phone to Cunningham and another friend on the night of the alleged visit, which WBIR said took place in October 2016. It does not, however, state whether the station confirmed this account with any healthcare facility. Reporter Becca Habegger told us:
We’re pointing everyone to our web story online and letting that speak for itself.
Since Schmitt-Matzen has reiterated his account of the visit, we cannot say with absolute certainty that it didn’t happen — nor do we want to have to say it. He did not respond to a request for comment from us but did tell the Post:
If some people want to call me a liar . . . I can handle that better than I can handle a child in my arms dying. It’s sticks and stones.
However, it’s also impossible to say that it did, because of an apparent lack of vetting of his claims by the multiple media outlets that ran with the story without following up on Venable’s initial reporting or finding a second source for the claim.
In this way, this particular Santa tale serves an instructive purpose: it shows how an unvetted story can spread regardless of how true it might be, with each news outlet repeating it making it seem that much closer to the truth until it is, at last, uncritically reported as fact.