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WOSTER: Sorting the news, real from phony

During my stint as editor of the newspaper in Pierre, we once published an obituary of a local man who was very much alive.

How did it happen? There's no good explanation, certainly nothing acceptable, for something like that. It was somebody's practical joke. At least one of the jokers understood how the newspaper worked and was capable of drafting a believable obituary. I doubt the pranksters expected the thing to make the newspaper, but it did.

My first conversation with the victim of the practical joke was heated. He asked several times how it happened, why didn't we check these things — the kinds of questions you might shout at a newspaper editor if it happened to you. I was like a kid standing on bare ground in a snowball fight with another kid who had a big pile of snowballs and the throwing arm of a Bob Feller. I had nothing, nothing but apologies and a promise to do a major-league correction in the next day's edition.

The next day's edition. That's what we had when we made an error in those days. One of the positives about the world of high-tech news reporting is the ability to respond almost instantly to mistakes. It doesn't make the mistake any less inexcusable, and a fair number of people who see the original story probably miss the correction, but at least the record is set straight quickly for those who care about facts.

I didn't handle obits at the paper, and I didn't remember seeing that one before we went to press. If I had, I probably wouldn't have flagged it. I didn't know the person, so I wouldn't have known he wasn't dead. And, as we must in the news business, I trusted my people. They were mortified at having let the false information slip through. We put in place safeguards to make sure it didn't happen again. As I reflected on it, those safeguards were pretty much the steps and procedures we already were using to make sure our news stories, leaks and tips were genuine.

All of us at the paper were angry at our huge error. All of us were ashamed, knowing we'd caused the victim and his family pain and suffering. All of us felt betrayed. People simply didn't use a newspaper's obituary page to play practical jokes. Newspapers were something special, because they printed facts.

Newspapers, even in today's multi-platform, multi-media, "information anytime, anyplace'' world, still are something special. That's still because they print the facts, and they go to extremes to make sure they are printing facts.

That's one reason my blood fairly boiled when I read about the recent attempt by some goofy group to scam the Washington Post into writing and publishing a false account from a source who claimed she was sexually assaulted by an Alabama candidate for U.S. Senate. The attempt to discredit the Post's ongoing reporting failed, because the newspaper's reporters checked out the source's story and uncovered the scam. The paper separated fact from fiction, which is what journalism is all about, whether it's The Daily Republic or the Post.

Look, we make mistakes in journalism. Reporters and editors are just as human as everyone else, although perhaps they pay more attention to facts than do most other people. But it's a tricky business. Reporters and editors get tips and leaks all the time. They're forever sorting out what's true from what's phony, who has what motive for peddling what rumor or story idea, all of that stuff. And they do it on deadline.

They don't need people deliberately making the job tougher by organizing concerted efforts to undermine faith in the news. Bottom line, it's that old security saying: We have to be good every time. They only have to get lucky once.

The world is full of sources of information, but it has a limited number of sources of actual news. One difference between the news and the other sources of information is, when the news says something that isn't true, they'll correct it and then tell you about it.