Professor X, not Malcolm X: Screwing up the coverage of Stan Lee’s death

As per usual, when someone screws up something in media, the Bat Signal comes my way:


The man in the photo and the actual dead celebrity is Stan Lee, the comic book legend who helped create and develop myriad characters in the Marvel Universe, including the Fantastic Four, The Hulk, X-Men and Spiderman.

Spike_Lee_at_the_2009_Tribeca_Film_FestivalSpike Lee, on the other hand, is a legendary African-American actor, director and producer, known for films like “Do The Right Thing,”  “Malcolm X,” “He Got Game” and “Summer of Sam.”

Clearly this guy isn’t the same as the guy in the newspaper above. Although this was a global embarrassment for the Gisborne Herald of New Zealand, Spike Lee took to Twitter to both reassure fans he’s alive and take the “oops” in stride.

(Spike Lee in 2009. CC BY 3.0 David Shankbone)


Looking dumb is bad, but here are a couple things to learn from this:


Be paranoid, especially when death is involved: Whenever someone dies and you have to write something about that person, you want to make everything involved with that story as clean as a cat’s mouth. Check dates, names, ages and everything else against every scrap of paper and legitimate website you can find. Assume that EVERYTHING you just wrote or will edit is wrong and then set out to prove yourself to be right. This will help you avoid looking dumb.


Carefully edit small bits of copy: Copy desk legend and frequent contributor to the “Dynamics” series Fred Vultee had a great motto when it came to editing: You can drown just as easily in 2 inches of water as you can in the Atlantic Ocean.

His point was that stupid mistakes don’t appear just in long stories or major scoops. They tend to happen in tiny bits of copy, such as news briefs, captions, refer text and other less-glamorous places. My best guess is that someone just hammered the sky box refer on Stan Lee’s death together on deadline without thinking much of it and nobody really gave it a serious edit. That’s how we end up with a dead Spike Lee on the front page.


Learn from your screw ups: I always tell students that I learned more by screwing up than I ever did by doing something right. When I made fact errors, I learned to be more diligent in checking the facts. When I got a source’s quote wrong, I started recording everything. When I wrote one thing when I meant to write another, I started separating my “writing mode” from my “editing mode.”

The narrow escapes from “Stupidville” were also instructive, but when I fell flat on my face and my only response upon seeing the error was, “Oh… shit….,” I learned a lot.

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