Does it matter if a fact or two gets messed up? I mean, does anyone really care if their name is misspelled or their business gets called by another name. It’s not that big a deal, right?
It was a big deal to get everything right – down to how we used numbers and spelled names – when I worked at the Amarillo Globe-News. I was thinking of that while I read this line from Charles M. Blow’s column:
The press may sometimes get things wrong, but it most often gets them right.
I made what I thought was a nothing mistake that wound up in print all over town. Because of it, I had to go into my editor’s office and sign a form that said I understood that I had made a mistake. Further, my signature certified that I understood that the paper would need to run a correction and that I understood the need to be careful in the future. It was then put into my personnel file.
The paper ran the correction the next day, ending it with the boilerplate tagline: “The Globe-News regrets the error.”
What was corrected was the misidentification of a funeral home in an obituary. I was a substitute obituary clerk during times the actual clerk was not there. Being a substitute, it was easy for me to slide over the difference between two similar-sounding funeral homes.
The owner of the misnamed mortuary was furious. He picked up the phone and called my editor, demanding a correction. This was not unusual. In fact, corrections are always requested when there is a factual error.
I didn’t feel that it was that big a deal. It was just a name, for Pete’s sake.
The reason it was serious, my editor explained, is because we were the paper of record. We were literally writing history, so it had to be correct. I signed the form, embarrassed by and disappointed in myself for making the mistake.
I worked a few steps from what’s called “the morgue” in newsrooms. It’s the library housing back issues of the paper where you can go to research things before you write. We ran a weekly feature called “Good Neighbors” that was a puff piece for various Amarilloans. Imagine the surprise when a reporter found a file in the morgue that identified the prospective Good Neighbor as a petty criminal.
There were corrections in those old issues, in case any one needed to be assured that the truth, to the best of all available knowledge, was being printed.
Not all papers or media outlets are as diligent as my little hometown paper, but they should be. Because the truth matters. Facts matter. It’s not only human to make mistakes, it’s vital.
If we embrace, as Michiko Kakutani, in his review of “1984” called a “mixture of gullibility and cynicism” that quits caring what truth is, we are ripe for ruin.
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