Thursday, January 19, 2006

Shorter Deborah Howell

Words don't actually mean anything.

I miss the old Deborah Howell. The one who said:

10. Accuracy is not just the most important thing; it’s the only thing. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recently did an excellent study on the credibility problems of American newspapers. The No. 1 complaint is that newspapers just don’t get facts right. Misspelled names and words; wrong addresses; wrong times. Simple stuff. This is not rocket science.

When a job seeker writes me a letter and misspells my name or has my title wrong or a misspelled word or a grammar error, I either ashcan the letter or write and tell them to get a new trade.

Sweat the small stuff. Have you heard the line: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out”? Tattoo that inside your left eyelid, and don’t forget it.

9. Don’t be afraid to look dumb and ask stupid questions. Accuracy demands it. I was once sent on two minutes’ notice to interview U.S. Sen. Gene McCarthy on his farm price support bill when I was a reporter in Minneapolis. I didn’t know anything about farm price supports. So I threw myself on the mercy of McCarthy and his aide. First they educated me, then they told me what was important about his bill, and then they told me who to call for criticism.

There was an old, wise judge – J.D. Todd – in Nueces County, Texas, when I was covering cops and courts for a radio and TV station. He could look at me and know whether I understood what was going on or not. He knew I had a noon deadline. As I would leave to call the office, he would say, “Debbie, approach the bench.” And I’d go up and he’d say, “You sure you understood all that?” And if I didn’t, he’d explain it to me.

Cops and politicians aren’t always trying to hide something from you. Let them help you when you need it. And if indeed they are hiding something, someone will know about it and probably will tell you if you keep your ear to the ground.

8. So you violate the 9th and 10th Commandments and make a mistake. Admit it. Know when to say you’re wrong. Know when to say you’re sorry. Don’t get defensive about it. Remember, daily journalism is the first rough draft of history. And we never get it all right all the time. That’s why God made corrections. Let me give you two great examples of personal humiliation.

We inadvertently left the school lunch menus out of the Sunday paper when I was editor in St. Paul. We got thousands of calls from angry parents who used that list to decide whether to pack lunches for their kids.

Then we got the snowplowing days screwed up on a snow emergency and caused hundreds of our readers to get parking tickets. Those both caused Page 1 corrections that I personally wrote. Another great moment in American journalism.

7. Don’t be a jerk. Too many young reporters act like you can’t get a story without being rude. Be friendly. You’d be surprised how far you can get on a smile and a pleasant manner. When I was a kid police reporter in Corpus Christi, Texas, I baked cookies for the dispatchers. They called me before the competition when there was a hot story breaking. They once sent a patrolman to fix my flat tire.

6. Have respect for the English language. There are rules. Follow them. Nothing irritates our readers and viewers more than grammatical errors or making up words. The Washington Post the other day said the president “motorcaded” somewhere. Motorcade is a noun, not a verb.

An editor working for me was having a particularly hard time with a very good reporter whose grammatical skills left something to be desired. He gave her a page filled with nothing but little marks. He told her, “This is a page of commas. Please learn how to use them.”

To you, I would say buy a paperback copy of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style.” Read it. Use it.

5. Treat your trade, your sources, your audience and the janitor with respect. Be someone who gives a damn about your town, even if you’re just passing through.

Give folks the benefit of the doubt. Put yourself in the place of the people you’re covering. If your daughter has just drowned, would you want a photographer sticking a camera in your face? I think that we should never fail to cover the news, never fail to expose what needs to be exposed. But I also think we should never fail to remember we’re reporting on people with reputations and families that we can carelessly ruin.

As Associated Press President Lou Boccardi said in a speech, “Should we not re-examine standards which, on some days, seem to foreclose from our readers any suggestion that anything, anywhere is being done right by anybody?”

I remember sitting on my front porch steps in St. Paul at midnight in my PJs waiting for a copy boy to bring a picture to me so I could make a decision on whether to run it on the front page in the final. It was a dramatic picture of a fireman holding the body of a 2-year-old, not unlike the famous picture of the fireman holding the body of a child after the Oklahoma City bombing.

The body of this child was burned. I couldn’t put it in the paper. An old boss of mine told me, “Don’t ever put anything on the front page that will make your readers want to throw up in their cereal in the morning.”

But that wasn’t the reason. I couldn’t bear to think of the parents of that child seeing the picture on the front page.