Anatomy of a screwup

The scary part of working in journalism is that when you make a mistake, it’s out there for the whole world to see, and at the end of the year, it’s bound in a hardback copy and put on the shelf for historians to laugh at 50 or 100 years from now.

I haven’t made a lot of blatant, glaring, factual errors in 10 years of doing this, so making a major boo-boo on my first story after taking over as editor of the Mess was rather humbling. Or maybe humiliating is a better word for it.

So how does it happen? How does a story so wrong get written and published?

Well, it begins with sloppy reporting, which may include bad listening, bad notetaking, bad writing, lack of fact checking, or all of the above. In the case I’m talking about, in which I wrote that a new “high-speed” (55 mph) curve was being built in Onamia, when in fact it was being build six miles west of town, it was all of the above.

What I heard at the County Board meeting was County State Aid Highway (CSAH) and 350th St. But I also heard CSAH 25 and CSAH 103. So when I looked at the map, I saw the junction of 25 and 350th. Problem was, it was at 25 and 107, not 25 and 103. So an alarm should’ve gone off, but sometimes when you get something in your head, it doesn’t occur to you that it could be any other way. I got this picture of the intersection on the south end of Onamia, and nothing was going to dislodge it.

If I had looked more closely at the meeting agenda, I would’ve seen that something was wrong with the picture I had drawn.

If I had driven to the place I was writing about and looked around, I would’ve seen it, too.

If I had made a call to the County Engineer, or run the story past him to make sure it was right…

If I had listened more carefully when a couple staff members told me they were confused by the story …

If I had questioned my own story as closely as I question stories of other reporters …

None of those things happened, the story went in, and the phone started ringing almost immediately. I posted a correction to the website, wrote a self-effecing correction story for this week’s paper, feasted on humble pie and crow for the next few days, wiped the egg of my face, and tried to move on.

You have to have a thick skin in this business, and you have to remain optimistic that the most recent mistake will be the last one. Events like this give you a healthy dose of paranoia that makes you look more closely at what you’re doing. Hopefully that will make a difference.

Here’s the corrected version of the story:
http://www.millelacsmessenger.com/main.asp?SectionID=1&SubSectionID=1&ArticleID=17070

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2 thoughts on “Anatomy of a screwup

  1. What ever happened to the old journalistic adage, “print the correction, don’t reprint the mistake”? Your mea culpa was entertaining, but because of how out-of-proportion you’ve blown it up, your readers may now know more about the screw-up than they do about the road project. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re a well known and trusted entity at the paper. Maybe just a little rusty, professor. 🙂

  2. What ever happened to the old journalistic adage, “print the correction, don’t reprint the mistake”? Your mea culpa was entertaining, but because of how out-of-proportion you’ve blown it up, your readers may now know more about the screw-up than they do about the road project. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re a well known and trusted entity at the paper. Maybe just a little rusty, professor. 🙂

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