From the editor: Getting it right when we get it wrong
I find myself reminding reporters I work with of a somewhat awkward truth fairly regularly.
“Everybody gets things wrong. It’s just that when we in the news business get things wrong, we publish our mistake and send it to thousands.”
It’s true, if I do say so myself, and it’s a reminder — on both sides of the conversation — that there’s an extra bit of onus that comes with screwing up in the business of journalism.
The only right thing we can do as newsmen and newswomen when we get something wrong is own up and tell the world, “Yep, that was us, we blew it.“ Nothing is more important in this business than trust, and we lose trust when we make mistakes — but much, much more so when we try to hide those mistakes.
For example, in a recent column, I screwed up! I was trying to make a point that it’s some kind of higher attainment as a collective humanity to look out for one another. It wasn’t a bad point, and I stand by it. But to underscore the point, I used an anecdote I have absolutely no way of knowing is actually true.
Did famed anthropologist Margaret Mead really say that the first sign of civilization was a healed femur, as I relayed a couple weeks ago?
It’s been brought to my attention that, no, she probably didn’t.
Now, I didn’t make this up out of the wholecloth. It’s more than just a common Facebook share — I promise you, I’m a more thoughtful journalist than that. It’s in literature. Writers — reasonably reputable ones — have made reference to this suggestion, and from there it’s become a kind of accepted cultural myth. But not only is there no real evidence Mead said this, there’s reason to believe she probably never would have, and in fact might not have even agreed with the idea it espouses.
I won’t get too deep into this, except to say that my initial bit of Google research made me think this was probably good to go with. My slightly more in-depth Google research has disabused me of that notion.
I’m sorry guys. I need to be better than that. I want to be crystal clear that this oversight is not in keeping with what I promised you when I first got here: That my primary allegiance is to the truth.
So OK, personal self-flagellating aside, why is this the whole column this week and not just a little note at the bottom of it? Because I think it is a valuable lesson for me and for you, the Craig Press readers. Sometimes, we will get things wrong. We won’t look closely at a fact, or we won’t check deeply enough into a statement, or we will just flat out mix things up and print something that isn’t right.
Boy do we hate it when that happens. Boy oh boy oh boy. It drives us absolutely nuts. And you need to know that. We are not in the business of spreading falsehoods, half-truths, misinformation, or anything resembling lies. But sometimes, we’ll make a mistake, and, unfortunately, that’s simply not acceptable in our line of work.
I hope you’ll hold us accountable, but I also hope you’ll offer us a little bit of grace and forgiveness. A mistake (hopefully on a larger scale than the Mead gaffe) can shake a reader’s faith in a publication. I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart as your editor, that our mistakes are not something we take lightly, and that we’ll do our absolute darndest to make things right whenever they — hopefully rarely — occur.
And I hope that when that happens you’ll sit with us, wait a while, and bind us up to help us walk and run again, like the imaginary early human did in that imaginary Margaret Mead story.
We’re doing our best, and we’re constantly striving to make our best better and better. Because you deserve it, Craig.
Thanks for reading, and thanks for your grace.
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Jesus takes a vacation in Mark 6:30-34. Or at least he tries to. His vacations go like my vacations sometimes do. Everything that can goes wrong does.