The Chicago Tribune issued an apology to readers after it published a Page One story that “contained major inaccuracies” largely due to the dishonesty of a source.
The story by Colleen Mastony, which was in the paper July 21 and online prior to that date, was headlined “After dogs days of summer, longtime ‘best friends’ will part.” It told the story of a blind veteran named John Maley and his guide dog, Cash. The piece has subsequently been removed from the paper’s website.
After publishing the story, “a reader contacted the newspaper questioning the account of how Maley became blind,” according to a note/apology to readers that was published Friday.
The original story had lots of detail:
On a recent afternoon, Maley and Cash board the 78 bus on Montrose Avenue, and transfer to the CTA Red Line train. Their destination: Morse Avenue Beach. It’s Cash’s favorite place in the city, and Maley has been making extra trips there all summer long.
He knows that these days are the last they will spend together.
From the moment they step out of the “L” station, Cash surges forward, heading east on Morse and pulling hard on the leash. “Easy, easy,” laughs Maley.
The dog knows that he is off-duty now, and headed to his favorite playground.
It is a beautiful summer day. The sky is blue, and when they reach the sand, Maley unhooks the leash. Cash bounds toward the water. Maley takes a tennis ball from his pocket and lets it fly. Cash romps toward the ball. Again and again, Maley throws the ball, and Cash sprints after it.
If you don’t look closely, you might think Maley is just a regular guy and Cash a regular dog.
You might not realize that they are best friends, spending their last days of summer together.
Maley told the Tribune he lost his sight while serving in the Gulf War. As the paper’s apology notes, that aspect of the story made up a significant portion of the front page piece:
Because of that, the story contained a five-paragraph narrative of the explosion that was not true. In fact, Maley was not in the Middle East in 1991 and did not serve in the Gulf War, he said. Also, in the headline Maley is referred to as a veteran, which Maley now says is not true.
The paper’s note explains that Maley “acknowledged in an interview late last week that he was not in the Army and that he lost his sight to diabetes.”
The Tribune’s note is well done in that it’s more than a brusque correction and offers detail for readers, such as the fact that the paper sought his Army records after hearing from the concerned reader.
Checking for Army records before describing someone as a veteran who lost their sight in an explosion is certainly the better practice. Unfortunately, it’s one that is too often ignored by news organizations.
Every year there are several examples where people claim to be a veteran and are proven to have lied. One example from 2012 was a first-person commentary aired by Marketplace wherein the author claimed to have been a former Army sniper and Double A baseball player. He was neither.
Along with including an apology, the Tribune’s note also says: “We have taken steps to correct lapses in corroborating the facts in our reporting.”
It’s a bit vague, but one hopes that means the paper will institute a process that will prevent fake veterans from ending up on Page One with their tall tales.
Finally, the paper should also redirect the original URLs for its story to the note to readers. As of now, anyone following the link from a search engine or elsewhere ends up with an error page, rather than an explanation of why the story has disappeared.