Screw-ups happen, but can damage trust
Every so often, a survey about voters’ opinion of Congress will come out that reveals something curious.
People have an opinion of Congress that puts its popularity somewhere around that of people who torture puppies as a hobby. But when people are asked about their own congressman or -woman, the responses indicate that voters are OK with their own representative.
That’s why traditionally, it’s been almost impossible to unseat an incumbent congressman. Now that the entire political situation in this country has been knocked into a cocked hat, that may change. But we won’t know for sure until November, if then.
I’ve always wondered if the same kind of thing is true about media. And I wondered that before the media was designated an “enemy of the people” and accused of pushing “fake news” (which, let’s face it, is shorthand for any story the person using the term doesn’t like, regardless of its truth).
As much as many people distrust the media now, it’s really always been thus. I’ve been in this business for nearly 40 years, and in that time there’s always been a lot of fretting among my colleagues about their popularity, which has vied for a low spot with congresspeople and those puppy torturers.
Part of it is the venerable tradition of “killing the messenger.” In ancient Persia, if somebody delivered bad news to the king, he had that person killed. It didn’t change the news, but it probably made the king feel better.
The other part of it is that we do make the occasional mistake, and even the smallest mistake can put a pretty bad ding in the trust readers have.
I have always tried to live my life by a simple principle: There are two things you never go wrong saying, “I don’t know” and “I screwed up.”
People are generally forgiving when you screw up, as long as you own up to it.
Granted, when a mistake is made, that bell often can’t be unrung. But I’ve found if I put in a correction, or make an effort to at least rectify the error, it can start to rebuild damaged trust.
Every reporter ruefully recalls their biggest screw-ups. One of the worst days of my career was when I identified a federal judge as a convicted drug dealer. There’s much more to the story, but the point is I screwed up for reasons that, to this day, I can’t fathom. It was an epic brain cramp.
Correcting mistakes is particularly important in a small market like ours. Not only am I dealing with a limited number of sources, whom I can’t afford to honk off, but I’m also likely to run into them at Walgren’s the next day.
But more than that, it’s simply the right thing to do. I didn’t go into journalism because I wanted to print misinformation. And it can have a real effect on people’s lives. What may seem like a minor mistake to me may cause major problems in somebody’s life. I try to keep that in mind.
Now obviously, not every “mistake” a reporter is accused of making results in a correction. I’ve been asked to run corrections when the information wasn’t wrong, but wasn’t phrased quite the way the source wanted it, or just made them look bad. Or worse yet, when the source has phrased something poorly and it’s come back to bite them (“I was misquoted!”). I don’t do corrections in those cases.
I’m no big fan of the national media, partially because they can’t — or at least don’t — worry about the consequences of their work. And Lord, they whine.
All of the accusations being
thrown at the national press really are nothing new, although the intensity has been ratcheted up to a point where I think White House reporters have valid worries about their own safety. Mark my words, some nutcase is going to fire a shot at some New York Times or Washington Post or CNN reporter one of these days. It’s gotten that ugly.
But you know what? It always has been ugly.
Up until 2016, White House reporters in particular were fat and happy. They simply didn’t have to work that hard, because there wasn’t all that much to uncover. A lot of days, they were basically rewriting press releases.
Things have changed. And to their credit, a lot of the national media have stepped up their game in a big way.
But one could ask why it’s taken arguably the most corrupt administration in American history to make them do the work they should have been doing all along.
It’s always driven me crazy that national reporters routinely do things I couldn’t. They’ll use anonymous sources with impunity, even when it’s not really necessary. Aside from the ethical pitfalls of that, I couldn’t do it because just about everybody who reads The Breeze would know who the anonymous person is.
But still, I wonder about whether national media hatred spills over into local markets. I’ve seen no evidence of that, here or elsewhere, but then, I haven’t really done anything to offend anybody yet (I think).
On the other hand, media hatred often isn’t rational. It’s often a Persian king thing.
It’s called human nature.
Tom Pantera is the news editor at the Wauneta Breeze. He has a passion for storytelling, obscure trivia and family. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org