Chicago Tribune readers read recently about Jackie Kennedy-Harris, a former crack-addict and prostitute who turned her life around. It was a classic story of redemption. A narrative about a woman whose life was nearly destroyed by addiction, who eventually got herself clean and then dedicated her life to helping other people.
Most readers would assume that reporting a human-interest story like this one would be straightforward. But in reality, even the most feel-good story can require deep and thorough reporting. That’s because, as when working on any news article, reporters grapple with a vitally important question: How do you know someone is telling you the truth?
The answer: Often, you don’t know.
That’s why reporters try, as much as possible, to vet the people they write about. We check criminal case files, civil lawsuits, driver’s records, marriage records, political donations. The list goes on. Certainly, we don’t do this for every person we write about. (And sometimes we regret it. Everyone in the newsroom has a story about a nice human-interest piece that turned into a nightmare. A few years ago, I tried to do a feel-good story about a woman who was doing good work in the Wrigleyville neighborhood, but who turned out to be a convicted felon who had stabbed someone. I found her criminal record while doing a routine check into her background. The story never ran.)
Needless to say, it’s the idea of missing something that keeps reporters up at night. Our work goes out to thousands of people who are quick to call if they see a mistake. And our tools are far from fool-proof. We don’t have subpoena power or lie detectors. Often, the best we can do is check the public records, try to confirm facts with second sources, keep an eye out for inconsistencies, talk to as many people as possible, and trust our gut instincts.
As a much-quoted editor once said: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”