WOSTER: Credibility is fragile thing in news businessI found many aspects of being a newspaper reporter challenging during a 42-year career, but nothing worried me more than mistakes. The newspaper business is full of opportunities for mistakes.
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
I had the opportunity to consider a bit the importance of credibility in the news business recently during the recent convention of the South Dakota Newspaper Association.
I found many aspects of being a newspaper reporter challenging during a 42-year career, but nothing worried me more than mistakes. The newspaper business is full of opportunities for mistakes.
It includes reporters, copy editors, assignment editors, city editors, photographers, photo editors and all sorts of other people who handle a piece of copy before it goes into a newspaper. Each one of those people is one more place where a mistake can sneak into the story. I used to marvel that we ever turned out a clean story, much less most of them each day.
Mistakes can be small or large: a misspelled name, a transposed date, the wrong word in the wrong place. A reporter might have a brain cramp and get a date wrong or a score wrong or a name wrong. Reporters and editors might think they know something and not really know it. The possibilities are endless. SpellCheck doesn’t save a reporter. I once saw Homestake (as in Mining Co.) turned by SpellCheck into hemostat.
As a young reporter, I worried less about mistakes in the paper than I did as I gained years and experience. You might think it would be the other way around, but the older I grew, the more I realized any word in any sentence can become an error in a news person’s hands.
At the paper, we fixed our mistakes as soon as we could. If someone pointed out an error, or if we discovered it ourselves, we ran a correction. That’s admirable and necessary. The correction rarely catches up the mistake, though, so newspapers are light years ahead to avoid mistakes in the first place.
When my daughter was married, we sent engagement write-ups to three or four papers where Jennifer and her intended, Rich, had ties. At least two of the publications misspelled one name or the other — in their headlines. Like many other families at the time, we intended to clip the stories from the papers and stick them on the refrigerator and place them in a scrapbook. We did that, I’m sure, but it takes a little of the thrill out of the experience when the name is spelled wrong.
In the early 1970s, when I worked for The Associated Press, the Watergate hearings were in full cry.
(As an aside, I’m surprised no one has done a remake of “All the President’s Men,” maybe with Justin Bieber as Woodward.)
Anyway, I followed the action in AP copy and in copy from other major news outlets — the Washington, Post, St. Petersburg Times and several other papers. At a Christmas party in Chamberlain, I talked with a guy who was a banker in Minnesota. He didn’t believe the Watergate stories. I was more than a little surprised, but he had a point. He was an avid Minnesota Vikings fan. He attended many games in person. After a game, when he read the sports stories, he was surprised at the number of errors. If he couldn’t count on the sports writers to get the Vikings’ game correct, he asked, why should he think the political writers would get Watergate right? (I summarize, but that was pretty much his reasoning.)
These days, people are bombarded with information — not necessarily always what I’d call news but certainly information — from hundreds and hundreds of sources. Even more so than when my Vikings fan talked about Watergate, today it’s vital that someone can be trusted to provide credible information. I still think the newspaper business does that, most of the time.
I happen to think most people, while they criticize the “media,” mean the big outfits. I think they tend to trust their local news people. I also happen to think most of those community news people deserve that trust. But credibility is a fragile thing, easily fractured and not easily repaired.
In an age of instant information, news reporters and editors would do well to guard their credibility as if it were the most valuable part of their business. It is.