Chicago Tribune sob story shows value of using public records for fact checking
One of the great axioms of journalism, attributed to Chicago’s City News Bureau, is “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
Recently, the Chicago Tribune demonstrated the importance of using public records to check out one of those stories that was too good to be true.
The Tribune originally wrote about Henry Wolfson, a popular substitute teacher in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Ill., who was living in a homeless shelter. The tale inspired former students to start raising funds for the 66-year-old Wolfson, who had apparently fallen on hard times. The students raised $40,000.
But court records showed that Wolfson had received a $247,000 inheritance in 2007, and a $12,000 lawsuit settlement in 2011. Wolfson admitted in a subsequent interview that he had gambled away $180,000 betting on horse races at off-track betting parlors.
Wolfson also said he would support his students refunding the money or donating it to a charity.
But had the paper checked public records first, it would have produced a more accurate, nuanced story. Would people have donated had they known that Wolfson had a gambling problem? Maybe, but at least they would have done it knowing full well how a life-long substitute teacher ended up in a homeless shelter.
It’s easy to want to want to run with a story that pulls at the heart strings, but as journalists we need to check the facts, and public records are a great way to do it.
Unfettered access to those in power, a push for government transparency and a vigorous defense of the First Amendment are perhaps more important now than ever before. Join us as we fight for the public’s right to know as an SPJ Supporter. Or, if you’re a journalist, we welcome you to stand with us as a Professional, Student or Retired Member.