Journalists don't like to hear this: People take advantage of us. Some try to scam us. It happens. And by being aware that it can happen, we become less susceptible. It rarely happens to reporters who have mastered the art of being skeptical. Examine each of these cases. They represent valuable reminders.
Case #1: A local chef contacts the newspaper to announce that he has won a gold medal at a world culinary championship. This case happened several years ago. A local chef made headlines about his 'championship' in weeklies and dailies. He was even photographed with his medal. A reporter at a daily thought something was odd. He started digging to confirm the chef's claims. It turned out, the chef's tale was a hoax. The man, who was hailed as a home-town hero for his medal, was soon cooked by some investigative reporting. The lesson: Always confirm the story.
Case #2: An MPP announces that he will be writing a complaint letter to Ontario's Integrity Commissioner to protest the actions of the Agriculture Minister. The MPP (who belongs to a rival political party) alleges a conflict of interest when a fundraiser for the agriculture minister is hosted by an anti-tobacco lobbyist. Sadly, it's often left to journalists to be the watchdogs. In this case, a reporter did one of the basics of reporting: The followup.
One month after the MPP announced he was filing a complaint with the integrity commissioner, the reporter did a routine check. Surprise! No complaint had been filed. Nada. Zippo.
In the reporter's followup story, the MPP wouldn't say why he did not file his complaint. However, he continued to say the issue was a high priority. Yeah, we heard that a month ago. In the reporter's story, Ontario's ag minister accused the MPP of trying to score political points. One has to agree. The MPP used the media to make himself look good. Unfortunately, if you're going to use the media to announce that you're filing a complaint with an integrity commissioner, you'd better have the integrity to follow through with your pledge. The lesson: Do followups. When a politician says he'll do something, there's a very good chance he/she won't.
Case #3: The operator of a small-town conservation area tells a reporter that he's going to start hosting concerts at his campground, including one by Alanis Morissette (who, at the time, was a Grammy-nominated superstar atop the charts with her international mega hit Jagged Little Pill).
Wow! What a scoop! After all, the story was simply expected to be a look at what's new at a place that had been struggling to attract campers and day trippers. "What? Alanis is going to play here?" I asked with a huge hint of disbelief. "That's what he told me," the reporter replied. "Well, you'd better check this out to find out if it's true," I told the reporter. "It sounds far-fetched." The reporter did check it out. Surprise. There was no Alanis concert coming to the run-down campground. Fortunately, this was one very tall tale that never made it to print. Upon further discussion, the reporter acknowledged that the man had a reputation for telling wild untruths. The lesson: Don't forget common sense. The more outlandish something sounds, the more you need to be twice as skeptical. As journalists, we often do crime stories warning the public about scams. But sometimes, we miss when we're being scammed.