April 17, 2003

Generations of reporters have been raised on the journalistic bromide “If your mother says she loves you, check it out” and for good reason.

The principle behind it–careful journalism requires a dose of skepticism–can keep you and your news organization from making embarrassing mistakes.

That’s the moral behind this cautionary tale which Greg Toppo, a graduate of Poynter’s News Reporting and Writing Fellowship Program, sent me (in the mid 90s) during his first months as a rookie reporter at the Santa Fe New Mexican. Greg went on to work for the Associated Press in Baltimore and Washington and now covers education for USA Today.

By Greg Toppo

This past weekend I was the only reporter on duty at the paper. Well, Saturday afternoon I get a call from a very distraught woman, says she’s calling from Washington, D.C.

Seems a family member, who lived for years in Santa Fe, died Thursday in D.C., and could we run a short obit for him in the Sunday paper? I said sure, just fax us the info, and we’ll try to run it, I’m sorry to hear about your loss. She thanks me 100 times over, says she’ll try to fax the stuff right away.

A few hours later a three-page handwritten fax comes in, detailing this guy’s life. I ask the editor if he wants to run it, he says we’ve got no room, wait until Sunday to deal with it.

So Sunday rolls around, it’s a madhouse. When things calm down, I go through the pile of stuff on my desk, about 8:30 p.m., and I find the fax. I ask the Sunday editor if she wants to run it. She says sure, so I type up six inches on the thing. At the end of the fax, it says that in lieu of flowers, donations should be sent to the New Mexico AIDS Center.

Well, I’ve never heard of the place, so I look it up in the phone book. No New Mexico AIDS Center. I think, the woman is in D.C., probably doing all of it from memory, she must just have the details wrong. So I look at the fax to see if she’s given us a number. No number, no name. She sent it from a Kinkos, but they don’t give their number, either. I give it to the editor to look at. She says, “I know this guy!” I just saw him a month ago! He looked great!

A bell should have gone off, but it didn’t. I thought maybe it was a sudden illness. Still, the New Mexico AIDS Center thing is bugging me. I notice that there’s a place called NM AIDS Services, but I’m reluctant to type that in, for fear of just plain getting it wrong.

Well, it seems this guy was married twice and is survived by a longtime companion. The editor, it turns out, knows the longtime companion, leaves a message on her machine, so sorry to hear about it, please give me a call, etc. Meanwhile, she suggests, why don’t I try to get the second wife on the phone. She lives in Santa Fe.

I call her, apologize for the inconvenience, but had she heard about the death of etc. and has she ever heard about New Mexico AIDS Center?

She says, “What?!”

Yes, I say, I’m awfully sorry. He died Thursday.

She says, Well, I just talked to him this morning. His daughter got married today. Who is this?

The long and short of it is that the second ex-wife tells me that the guy had a girlfriend in Austin, Texas, with whom he just broke up, plus the longtime companion in Santa Fe: two girlfriends in long-distance relationships for months, and the Texas one just found out about the Santa Fe one. I called Austin info, and sure enough the fax was sent from Austin, not D.C.

The jilted girlfriend made up the whole thing. We finally got the Santa Fe girlfriend on the phone, she verified it. The “deceased” called an hour later and did the same, with great embarrassment.

It was then, of course, that I remembered “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” As it turns out, we have no policy on accepting obits from family members, but thanks to this, we will soon. I thank my stars that we made the calls. The editor thanks hers, too.

Greg Toppo learned an important lesson and helped his paper dodge a painful bullet. Unfortunately, the history of journalism is studded with hoaxes.

Have you got a story to tell…either about being duped or outfoxing a hoaxter?
Let us know here.

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Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

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