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Making or Mangling News

October 9, 2005

Periodically I write a news story that lands on the front page. The topics have ranged from Agent Orange to the weather. This past week, an investigation by several colleagues and I ran in The Record in a five-day series, accompanied by an online version with streaming video, examining the legacy of toxic waste that was dumped decades ago in water supply areas of New Jersey and New York (www.toxiclegacy.com).

Whether itís on the front page or a back page, publication of an item makes it news and puts that topic out there for public discussion. That discussion often includes angry complaints that the reporting didnít get something right. And errors indeed happen. At public meetings I cover, people often joke, no doubt from experience, that their names will be misspelled in the newspapers.

As an author with what some consider a colorful past, Iím periodically also in the news. Sometimes the reporting is well done. Sometimes, itís awful. Journalists take pride in getting the story right. Then you get interviewedóand oh boy! Sometimes you hardly recognize yourself in the resulting news item.

Iíve seen quotes I didnít say reported by a writer I donít recall speaking to. Iíve seen my comments mangled by a writer who lambastes others for misreading the great currents of current affairs. Iíve seen my age and significant events in my life mangled in a history book. Iíve seen my name misspelled.

Itís a humbling experience to be interviewed and misconstrued, and then go back to work as an interviewer. Itís also an invaluable educational experience. Some befuddled writers Iíve crossed paths with obviously take lousy notes. And thatís a lesson to me to jot names and dates and quotes more clearly in my nearly illegible handwriting.

From being profiled in the news, Iíve also learned that there can be more than one way of interpreting a comment. Iíve more than once told a memorable story I thought made a telling point. Then I read the interviewerís perfectly logical, different take on that story, making a different point than I intended. Thus sobered, I focus in my own reporting on clarifying the point of a story that someone tells me.

Iíve learned from pained experience to ask, to the point of sounding daft, how to spell names, ages, streets, towns, dates of events. I repeat key quotes in my notes back to the person whoís talking. Sound anal? Hereís a disquieting discovery I made in reviewing my own reporting techniques: I manage to get by despite what might be called hearing dyslexia. Sometimes, I do scramble letters and numbers. Realizing that, I worry that I might mangle the news.

Imagine then what itís like working on a months-long project with numerous reporters and editors. Despite redoubled efforts to double-check files upon files of copy, graphics and photo captions, weíll doubtlessly be hearing about some errors or misconceptions.

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