Newspaper Defends Background Checking Procedure

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A local newspaper in Austin, Texas recently issued a follow-up piece to a feature story they published about an 81-year-old female pilot who has logged nearly 29,000 flight hours during her lifetime.  The intention of the story was to make its readers feel good and highlight the incredible achievement of this woman who is still going strong despite her age.  Shortly after the story was published, the newspaper got wind of an incident that occurred nearly 40 years ago that they felt was important to inform their readers about – namely, a murder conviction for the death of her 6-year-old stepson.

The story describes what happened and why they have chosen to inform their readers about the woman’s past.  While this isn’t a case of conducting a background check for employment purposes, one can clearly see the similarities. 

81-year-old pilot still flying high – June 10, 2009

Pilot says she has skeletons in past – June 13, 2009

Why we do background checks

By Debbie Hiott, Austin-American Statesman – June 15, 2009

Last week we ran a front page feature about Smithville pilot Lori Adams, who continues a lifetime of flying at 81. Saturday, we ran another story about Adams, this time pointing out a bit of her history that wasn’t in the original story, that Adams had been convicted in 1973 for the murder of her 6-year-old stepson. Her conviction did not show up in the background check we routinely do on profile subjects before we put them in the paper.

Some of our readers thanked us for the additional information about Adams. Others complained that the murder wasn’t relevant to Adams’ life as a pilot. They wondered why we felt compelled to come back and do the second story. Still others were bothered that we do background checks at all.

The original profile, a nicely-written account by Andrea Lorenz, could easily be seen as a celebration of the pilot’s life and spirit. It was a feel-good piece about how one local woman persists in following her passion.

When we discovered after the article ran that our routine background check had failed to reveal a murder conviction, that information seemed significant enough to Adams’ life story to warrant a follow-up article. We didn’t do it out of any desire to embarrass Adams or to pass any sort of judgment on her. Our sole motivation was that we felt readers deserved a more full picture of Adams’ life in light of the previous profile we had run.

As for those background checks we do, they are checks of public records — the sort of information available to anyone about anyone else. A person can use a service or dig through individual courthouse records. We generally check through a service for criminal background, lawsuits, liens and bankruptcies. We do the checks to make sure we aren’t surprised about someone’s background after a story comes out, as we were in this case. Had we known about the murder conviction in this case, we might have included it in the original profile or we might have decided not to do a story about the pilot at all.

In some cases we decide the information we have found isn’t relevant to the story because it’s old, it’s minor or it has no relation to the current situation. In this case, the nature of the crime for which Adams was convicted was such that we felt we should present the information to readers and let them decide whether it changed their perceptions of the original story.

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