Be sure that you are sure: A Memorial Day reminder

Most journalism mistakes happen when writers assume they know something and editors then assume the same thing. Case in point, we once had a situation that started with an editor telling a reporter to check on a “fatality” that happened overnight. The reporter called the sheriff’s office to get info on the “fatality,” giving the officer in charge information as to where and when it happened. The officer then gave the reporter the name and age of the “fatality,” which the paper dutifully reported.

The local radio stations, many of which practiced a “rip and read” philosophy for news, took the story of the “fatality” and rewrote it for their morning newscasts. The afternoon paper couldn’t get any sources on the record fast enough to make the latest edition so the reporter cribbed our article about the “fatality” and ran with it. Friends and family members of the “fatality” victim called the man’s wife to express condolences.

Problem? The guy wasn’t dead.

Nobody had stopped to think, “Hey, do we KNOW this is a fatality?” The reporter took it and ran with it and everyone just assumed that was the case.

I thought about the problem with people who “assume” things (You make an “ass” out of “u” and “me.”) when I was looking at the stories on Memorial Day. (Truth be told, for years, I screwed up Labor Day and Memorial Day until some editor finally barked at me that “We’re not memorializing the loss of summer!” That one stuck…) Still, I had this belief (and based on what people published Monday, I’m not alone) that it was about either service or veterans who had died. It’s actually more specific than that.

A friend posted this from an organization of mothers who lost a child in military service to help keep things straight:


We talked about the “I guess everything is the same” when I posted about people screwing up Jewish words and events a month or so back. I’m also quite certain similar problems occur when we talk about other faiths and culture where our “best guess” isn’t good enough.

When you are working on a topic that you think you know, do some research to make sure. It’s usually when we’re only partially informed that we make our biggest and worst mistakes.

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