Zahra Baker's photo used to illustrate peculiar Web story

Zahra Baker's photo used to illustrate peculiar Web story

Credit: James Nix / AP

Zahra Clare Baker, 10, gets a hearing aid at an event at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. in May.

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by MARK WASHBURN / The Charlotte Observer

WCNC.com

Posted on June 20, 2013 at 10:04 PM

A picture of Zahra Baker getting a hearing aid in 2010 was used to illustrate a Washington Times Web story this week about a hearing-impaired girl in New Jersey who was asked to stop using sign language on a school bus.

By the time the Washington Times took down the photo of Zahra – the 10-year-old Hickory girl whose dismembered remains were found in Caldwell County – the story and photo combo had gone viral, showing up prominently on specialty news sites like TruNews.

Messages from the Observer seeking an explanation for the mix-up were left at The Washington Times with executive editor David S. Jackson and digital editor Ian Bishop. Neither responded Thursday, but Douglas Ernst, whose LinkedIn profile identifies him as a member of the Times staff, did call an Observer reporter on Bishop’s behalf to discuss the incident.

Ernst said at the outset that the conversation would have to be “off the record.” When told that the conversation needed to be on the record, Ernst said he could say no more.

“Have a good day,” he said, then hung up.

Story left out the ‘when’

Under the headline “N.J. school board bans hearing-impaired girl from using sign language,” here’s the first paragraph of the Washington Times story posted on its website Thursday: “New Jersey school officials have threatened a 12-year-old hearing-impaired girl to stop using sign language to communicate on the school bus or face a 3-day suspension, the girl’s parents told ABC News.”

It went on to describe the case of Danica Lesko, whose use of sign language was described in an ABC News story as a safety hazard and also drew on reporting by the Newark-based Star Ledger, New Jersey’s largest newspaper.

Thursday afternoon, the story was ranked as the second-most popular and second-most e-mailed story on the Washington Times website.

But left unsaid in the story was the fact the events occurred in March 2001.

In truth, school officials had backed down after the story attracted attention on talk shows, and said Lesko could use sign language on the bus as long as it didn’t distract the driver. Two lawsuits have been filed in the case in the years since, both dismissed.

Lesko, the 12-year-old in the first paragraph of the story, is now 24.

But on the Internet, the story has a life of its own – it pops up as a fresh outrage from time to time on blogs and opinion sites.

Zahra’s picture from 2010

Among the websites that prominently displayed Zahra’s picture with the Washington Times’ story was the Jeffersonville, Ill.-based End Time Headlines. “We strive to operate in excellence and in integrity to provide accurate and reliable sources to inform our readers,” the site explains. No one could be reached there Thursday.

TruNews, based in Vero Beach, Fla., apologized for the mistake and removed Zahra’s picture after the Observer inquired about it. “It was originally contained in the Washington Times article linked at the bottom,” said Chase Anderson of TruNews.

James Nix of the Concord Independent Tribune snapped the picture of Zahra in May 2010 when she was among 100 people given hearing aids at an event at Charlotte Motor Speedway sponsored by the Starkey Hearing Foundation.

Nix’s photo, later picked up and distributed by the Associated Press, showed the innocent, freckle-faced girl who had already lost a leg to cancer adjusting the hearing aid in her ear.

Five months later, Zahra was reported missing. Her stepmother pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in her death. Zahra’s remains have been returned to her native Australia.

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