Learning the Hard Way

There's a saying in journalism: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."

I learned as a young reporter to always double- and triple-check information, especially with reliable and unbiased sources. Even the smallest facts, if they are wrong, can compromise a writer's credibility, and that's important in a year when truth has taken on a relative dimension.

I was in my 20s, writing about a Florida community plagued by youth gangs and juvenile violence — a community not far from Parkland, where the recent mass shooting took place. At a football game where I was looking for "color" to liven the story, one team had pulled far ahead of the other, and I left the game with minutes remaining to wrap up the story before deadline. It began with a scene showing fans of the winning team celebrating. When it was published the next morning, I was called into the editor's office.

He was someone who did not suffer fools lightly, and I was flattered that he considered me at that moment one of the bureau's "rising stars" (frankly, a lot of us received this designation at one time or another). He had received a call, and it turned out my lede — the story opener — was wrong. In the last seconds of the game, just after I had left, the losing team had scored a winning touchdown. I should have checked the final score, but I hadn't. I made an assumption, and I was wrong. If I was wrong about that, who was going to believe the rest of the story?

A young reporter should be allowed to make mistakes and learn from them, but this was a big competitive daily newspaper. My error — along with a detail in another article that miscalculated the distance between two places — was enough to eventually cost me a promotion and be scratched off the top editor's list.

It was a hard lesson but one that stuck with me. From that time on, I've been assiduous about checking information, underlining key points (large and small) in project drafts and marking them off once they have been confirmed.

It pays to check the facts, even (perhaps especially) when they come from your mother.