Wednesday, January 04, 2006

New journalism, always changing

I proofread and edited my friend Joy's obituary the other day. It was written by another friend of Joy's who asked me to look it over and polish it. She had compiled it from information I'd given her along with an article published in the Beautiful Bonner History book and from what she and a few other friends knew. Since Joy had no immediate family to provide us a complete chronology of her life, we did the best we could in piecing together her story.

I read my edited copy several times before sending it on to Marcia who, in turn, sent it to the funeral home. The funeral home takes direct responsibility for submitting obituaries to the paper. Joy's story appeared in Saturday's Daily Bee. While beginning to read, my eyes immediately shot straight to a typographical error several paragraphs into the obituary. It appeared in some dialogue between Annie and Joy several years ago when Annie was a very young child. The quote should have read "I are here." In the newspaper, it read, "I are her."

Upon seeing the mistake, I cringed in disgust and then went to my computer to see if I had committed the error. I had not. The quote was correct on my computer, so I wrote a note to the editor and asked her to insert the missing letter before the obituary appeared in the paper again. I emphasized that it was just one letter, but that one letter made a dramatic difference in meaning. Thankfully, when the obituary appeared yesterday, the quote was correct.

I also learned Saturday morning that Joy had taught for a year before her marriage and subsequent move to New York in the early 1950s. The obituary had included only her teaching years from 1965-1992. This additional information came from a couple of my coffee-cult friends, who had Joy as a teacher shortly after she'd graduated from the University of Idaho. Unfortunately, I had no idea of this information while polishing the obituary; nonetheless, I made the effort to have it added for the second appearance in the paper.

However, the people who were directly responsible for submitting the obituary were out of town, and since I did not know the exact information to give the funeral director, we chose to let it go. Possibly it will be included in today's service for Joy at First Lutheran Church.

I make this point because my basic training as a journalist, from the get-go at Sandpoint High School, implored me to "get it right." Later, as a high school journalism adviser, I constantly hammered away at my own students the importance of accuracy, no matter how incidental. In my own freelance writing career, I can count on one hand the mistakes that actually appeared in more than 500 stories written.

Granted, mistakes certainly appeared in numerous first, second and third drafts, but that ultimate commandment, taught to me by my journalism instructor Bob Hamilton never to falter in getting it right, has always driven me through every assignment---big and small. My accuracy record is also due to some near misses where I almost embarrassed myself publicly with faulty information, only to have divine intervention save me from myself. In short, I've been pretty lucky. A good editor helps also.

Throughout my career, the reminder has often resounded that we never reach a point of infallibilty or importance where we have the luxury of slacking off on the basics we were first taught as journalists: ask how to spell names. Don't assume! Double check facts and who gave them to you. Make sure all information is credible, and exhaust all means to do so. Etc. Etc.

Last night after flipping the channels between the Penn State--Florida State game and CNN, where suddenly Anderson Cooper was reporting that 12 of the 13 West Virginia coal miners had survived, I immediately came to life from my semi-dazed couch potato state and yelled down the hall to Bill the phenomenal news about the coal miners.

I watched for about an hour as plans were unfolding for those miners, who had suddenly risen from certain death deep down within the earth, to walk across that bridge and run to the waiting arms of jubilant family and friends who'd kept the vigil, who'd prayed for a miracle, and who were now going to experience one. I kept watching until the first ambulance went by the church and headed toward a hospital.

Deciding that tomorrow was a busy day and confident that I'd see this joyous scene replayed at least 100 times on CNN, I headed off to bed with a big smile on my face. Today's news had been really good for a change. Penn State and one of my favorite coaches, Joe Paterno, had won a thriller in the Orange Bowl, West Virginia had won its bowl game over a favored Georgia the night before, and now 12 West Virginia coal miners would be living proof of the power of prayer.

This morning, when I read my Internet news, which I wish were inaccurate, I was stunned. Knowing how this shocking revelation of this cruel, merciless mistake in reporting hit me, I tried to imagine the depth of emotion within that Baptist Church last night when those families learned that someone had forsaken them, and it wasn't God.

If anything comes of this grossest and cruelest media debacles, among the many that seem to have become the rule rather than the exception, I pray that, in these miners' memories, some courageous leaders with consciences among journalists step forward and say, "Never again."

Obviously, "never" sets the bar pretty high for returning to journalistic basics of not allowing such mistakes in reporting the news---no matter how insignificant they appear or whom we can blame for giving us wrong information. Nonetheless, it's a mighty good place to start.

And, to top it off, this morning, I see in the local paper that Helen Newton is running for Sandpoint's City Council. I thought she won that election last November.

All I know is what I read in the papers or watch on TV, and I'm yearning for a little more truth.


Word Tosser said...

I thought I sensed your fingers in the O'Donnell obits.

It is sad about the minors. How horrible for their families.

Ah, the Bee... interesting as always, imagine Newton's surprise to learn she wasn't elected yet. lol

Anonymous said...

I agree that journalistic inaccuracy due to faulty data is unforgivable, but worse yet is intentional misinformation meant to slant the opinion of the reader/viewer/listener, which seems to be the rule anymore rather than the exception. One that comes to mind is that of a radio show host (famous for his factual distortions) who, while slamming those who were concerned about deforestation in our country, stated that there is now more forestland in the United States today than there was just after the American Revolution. Of course he was right, since at the time the United States was confined to the east coast of the continent and didn’t include the western portion. The point is that, while faulty information can be mistakenly presented as fact, a far greater abomination occurs when facts are used to defend falsehoods.

MLove said...

I would hate to think that anyone would accept as gospel any information spread on talk shows. I think they're a completely different medium, known for their philosophical bias and not to be used as a substitute for professional journalism.

I'm an old-school type who still (maybe naively) believes reporters and news shows should present the facts and a fair representation of perspectives. Then, let the editorial writers, commentators and even talk show hosts go at it.

gina said...

I can't even bear to read the Bee with all its typos and mistakes. Just yesterday, there were two glaring mistakes in one photo caption! It's sad. It used to be a decent paper. Even the Spokesman has fallen prey to the rule of the spell checker. It finds spelling errors, but not grammar errors, of which it sadly contains more and more.

And the miner debacle... a real tragedy, both in the incident itself and in the false hope given. Very sad.

You might enjoy knowing Jonathan is a photographer now for the Whitworthian - the college paper at Whitworth. He loves it!

MLove said...

That's cool, Gina. Tell him to keep it up; maybe we'll be seeing his photos in the big papers one of these days.