Duped by the "Do-Gooders"?
Checking out sources who claim to do good deeds
By Jennifer Dorroh
Jennifer Dorroh (firstname.lastname@example.org) is AJR's managing editor.
G REG WILLIAMS CLAIMED he had counseled students in Littleton, Colorado, in the wake of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School. He said he'd toured the school library just a few days after the murders there. He even claimed that a Columbine student had shown him a T-shirt stained with the blood of a slain friend.
If reporter Joel Patenaude had done his homework, he would have known that none of those claims could be confirmed. But, like many reporters, Patenaude didn't think he needed to verify the accuracy of a source's good deeds. As he found out, even do-gooders need to be checked out.
Patenaude, then a reporter at Illinois' Aurora Beacon News, covered an August 30 speech Williams delivered at Yorkville High School about his experiences as a crisis counselor at Columbine. According to Patenaude, Williams spoke to more than 850 parents. He related the story of a student who pulled his murdered friend's body over his and played dead until the killings ceased. The teenager carried the bloody shirt he had worn that day in his backpack, Williams told the audience.
To report the story, Patenaude relied on the speech and Williams' promotional material, which claimed he had spoken at more than 150 schools about Columbine. The reporter did not look further into the background of Williams, a Centralia, Illinois, mortician and Baptist minister. After a couple of days he filed a straight speech story about the event.
"It would have been easy to check out his claims," Patenaude says. "It just didn't occur to me that it might be necessary." The Chicago Daily Herald had also reported Williams' story as fact.
On September 4, when the story ran in the Beacon News and its Copley sister paper, the Joliet Herald-News, a Chicago Tribune reporter tipped off the Herald-News that there might be a problem with Williams' account. When Patenaude found out, he called Columbine officials to try to confirm Williams' counseling role. "I couldn't find a soul in the Littleton area school district who had ever heard of him," he says.
Patenaude then contacted Williams, who said this was the first time he had heard anyone in Colorado deny his claims. Patenaude gave Williams the names of several officials in Littleton. "I asked him to call them, and then call me back with confirmation," he says. "But he didn't."
When the reporter called Williams again, the mortician threatened to sue and referred Patenaude to his attorney. Williams then faxed a "blustery" letter to the paper, Patenaude says.
A week after the original story appeared, the Beacon News published Patenaude's discovery, in which the Columbine school district's spokesman called Williams "an imposter." The story also quoted Williams' boss, funeral home director Larry Irvin, who said he was convinced his employee had been in Littleton: "I know because I paid for his airfare, car rental, and I have the motel bill," Irvin told the paper.
In an added twist, Williams' hometown paper, the Centralia Morning Sentinel, published Williams' side of the story on its front page. Managing Editor Ted Saylor says Williams charged that Patenaude had reneged on a promise to hold the story until the mortician sent a written record of his counseling role. The Centralia paper did not look any further into Williams' background. Although "the details were sketchy" about Williams' claims, Patenaude was "out for blood with little proof," Saylor says. "If there had been a story there, I would have been all over it."
Patenaude continued to investigate, and the Beacon News printed four more stories packed with sources who appeared to refute Williams' claims. Williams did not return AJR phone calls.
Beacon News City Editor John Russell doesn't fault Patenaude for not initially confirming Williams' story. When speakers claim good things about themselves, "we certainly don't go into any further background than what we get from the agency sponsoring the event," he says.
"That tends to be standard practice," says Tim J. McGuire, editor of Minneapolis' Star-Tribune and vice president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. "But enough of us have gotten burned that we should know better."
McGuire speaks from experience. In December 1999, "a Salvation Army flack pitched us a story about a bell ringer that turned out to be false," he says. The bell ringer told the paper she had been a pharmacist and a Juilliard Music School scholarship winner before falling into poverty. When McGuire discovered that the paper had run a false story, he published an apology to readers.
"The fact is, we're always responsible for the accuracy of what we print," he says. "We should be checking these things out all the time, but we forget. When something like this happens, we say, ŒBoy, we better do that,' and we start doing it again."
Patenaude says the incident has made him less likely to trust what he's told without further research. Now covering the Colorado Legislature for Boulder's Daily Camera, Patenaude says there is "more demand from both sides of the aisle that I get my info right.... I want to believe that I won't let it happen again."