Don Rogers: Deliberate misquoting goes way over the line beyond journalism
Vail, CO, Colorado
I’m blessed that journalism is not my first career. Blessed that I’ve seen it from the other side of the notebook. Blessed that I know life is seen and lived in many different ways.
Which, of course, led me to journalism, the high discipline of the observer. Journalism takes its hits, in part because even at best it only can be practiced imperfectly.
Humans are imperfect; they make mistakes. Journalists don’t have complete access to information. They are, at root, lay people trying to understand experts in their respective fields and then report precisely not in the experts’ language and view but for the general audience of other lay people. We’re all lay people outside our occupations and interests.
Journalism is a process, like the scientific process, with similar rules of confirmation, comprehension, ethics and how you reach conclusions.
It’s necessarily fraught with error and misunderstanding, human beings being what they are.
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The base requirement of the journalist is to come to the mission with a pure heart, to seek the truth in this murky world. That starts with getting the quote right, being accurate with the little facts. Otherwise, the whole edifice you build as a story will be flawed.
In my life before journalism, I had the thrill of seeing my name in print, in a box score as a kid and quoted as an adult.
I’ve also felt that frustration of seeing words I did not say, of supposedly doing things I did not do.
But these were honest mistakes made by reporters who didn’t know better, didn’t have my experience, and the errors generally were minor things. Still.
On this side of reporting, I’ve learned how difficult it is to go from story to story, expert to expert, and get it all right. I’m amazed at how well my colleagues have done this over the years.
Since we are dealing with humans, you also have people with big stakes in your story, whose lenses see entirely, let’s say, left or entirely right because they are partisan. Not just politically but because they want an issue to go a certain way and believe, basically, it is the only right way.
So you can be absolutely correct and be criticized loudly for getting it “wrong.” Even when you haven’t.
So I love this work. This is mission impossible. We’re all hostage to our humanity, for better and for worse.
No 1 plus 1 equals 2 in this world. The only constant is the journalist trying to be true. That’s a lot to ask of someone, I realize. But it’s all we have.
If you got it wrong, the true journalist wants to correct it so that the record is righted, the truth comes out in the end. That’s regardless of how it makes us look.
This is why my papers do corrections on Page One and promptly. We care far less how we appear than whether we are wedded to getting it right. That’s not to sound high and mighty. It’s just the way it is supposed to be.
Journalism ” like law, medicine, auto mechanics et al ” is subject to corruption, certainly. I worry less about whether newspapers or TV stations or Web sites will survive in the future than corruption of the discipline.
Journalism in the free world is practiced through business models. Businesses operate in a world of branding, sales for service and differentiating themselves from the competition. Nothing inherently wrong with that. But it can make journalism more complicated. There is a lot of pressure to make the journalism serve the business needs instead of the other, proper way around.
Of course, the problem is that when the journalism aims to serve the needs of sales instead of the community, it’s no longer journalism.
Journalists serving another master than accuracy and truth no longer are journalists. This is an absolute in a real world of perception.
Recently, I was misquoted and mischaracterized in a way that had not happened before. I’ve been misquoted honestly. And I’ve been hung rhetorically on my own true words. That’s the way it goes. I accept that.
But I had not previously been deliberately hung on words I most definitely did not say, at least not by anyone I’d recognize as a journalist. I had not been quoted as saying pretty much the direct opposite of what I actually had said, speaking clearly and slowly, and repeatedly.
I understand honest mistakes and conclusions. That happens, and I’m quite sure that I’ve committed these misdemeanors too many times, thinking I was right on.
But reckless disregard for accuracy and truth while pursuing another interest is new to me from a “journalist.”
I honor the discipline and have high respect for those who punish themselves to practice it the right way. They work through low wages, lots of pressure and often scant understanding by the public they serve in a great quest to inform truly.
So this experience on one level is infuriating. It’s a betrayal of our high calling. On another level, I understand better where our sources are coming from when we misquote or otherwise get facts wrong with them.
I want to scream, “No, I was misquoted!” to my friends who live and work in the public eye. All I’ll get, though, is a hearty, “Welcome to the club!”
This experience tells me that we need to redouble our efforts to make sure we don’t do anything like this to our sources. And, if we do get a quote or fact wrong, to correct as promptly and prominently as we can.
Being treated otherwise, frankly, sucks. And it’s not right. I won’t forget that.
Don Rogers is the editor and publisher of the Vail Daily. He can be reached at 970-748-2920 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He welcomes your comments.