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Somaly Mam of Somaly Mam Foundation attends the Digital Life Design conference June 30, 2011, in Munich. Mam is no longer associated with the foundation that bears her name. / Sascha Baumann, Getty Images

The idea that Somaly Mam was forced to service multiple men a day while a teen sex slave in Cambodia stayed with me long after I read her memoir a few years ago. In fact, I was so moved by her description of another young woman having her eye scooped out by a vicious pimp that I nearly held a fundraiser for Cambodian sex slaves.

Instead, I settled for buying products that supported the Somaly Mam Foundation at The Body Shop, where I had never even shopped before.

I was shocked to learn recently that much of Mam's story appears to have been fabricated and incidents including the eye-gouging never happened, according to a recent Newsweek report. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who gave Mam much of her early publicity, says he regrets ever writing about her. And Mam stepped down from the foundation bearing her name.

I shouldn't have been surprised. They may not be quite as graphic, but I've heard my share of inflated or even false victim stories as a reporter covering safety and fraud over the years. Often these come thanks to advocacy groups that have provided media training and coaching on the kind of sad stories we reporters often lap up.

Who can forget Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea about his school-building in Central Asia? The book was exposed as partially fabricated on 60 Minutes, and Mortenson was charged with misusing millions from his successful charity fundraising.

I like to think I find out about the holes in sources' stories before I write about them, but I'm sure that wasn't always the case. In 1998, I did a story about air bag deaths and included a case by a New Jersey man whose pregnant wife died, allegedly because of the air bag in the couple's Ford Explorer. Ford countersued, claiming the man strangled his wife. Prosecutors dropped their investigation of possible murder, citing inconclusive expert reports.

In a feverish 24/7 news climate that often leaves less time for fact checking and source development, it's more important than ever for journalists to thoroughly check out these sad stories. Business and government officials should give reporters off-the-record guidance when the story they're hearing from victims and other critics may not be true.

A blanket "no comment" may make a company feel like it isn't stooping to the level of its truth-twisting critics, but it doesn't help readers (who are their consumers or voters), the agency or business and certainly not the journalist who perpetuates the bad information.

An investigative piece I did about the experience of employees at a major U.S. firm would have started with a chilling first-person tale of the close friend of an employee who died on the job because of the company's callousness. But other sources pointed out several holes in the alleged friend's story, which cast doubt on everything provided by the person ?? and the group that pitched her. That source wound up on the cutting room floor.

A government whistle-blower had a powerful story to tell ?? and it turned out to be consistent with well-publicized findings about financial misconduct. But the whistle-blower's lawsuit was eerily similar to one he filed against his previous employer, a detail that added much needed balance and context to my article. I couldn't have written it if everyone involved maintained a "say nothing" strategy.

When charities and advocacy groups inflate, embellish or fabricate stories - and the targets or causes don't work to correct them - it hurts far more than the cause. It makes us all more cynical about the heart-wrenching tales we read, which hurts the victims who really deserve our empathy and support.

O'Donnell covers health care policy for USA TODAY



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Voices: Inflating stories about victims

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