When Indiana’s legendary Richard Lugar died last week, the New York Times managed to crank out this 48-word monstrosity of a lead:
Richard G. Lugar, who represented Indiana in the Senate for 36 years and whose mastery of foreign affairs made him one of only a handful of senators in modern history to exercise substantial influence on the nation’s international relations, died on Sunday in Annandale, Va. He was 87.
And yet, that paled in comparison to the 144-word mea culpa the paper had to write once the folks there realized they massively botched the piece:
I imagined this to be the conversation at the New York Times last week around the obituary desk:
Obit Writer 1: Man, we’ll never screw up another obituary any worse than we did when John McCain died…
Obit Writer 2: Hold my beer.
If you look at the mistakes in there, you can see that a lot of this came down to fact checking. People can argue about nuance, such as if someone “resigned” or merely “left a job,” but the date something happened is one of those things we can all figure out if we try really, really hard.
With that in mind, let’s look back at a few of the points we made when the times ran its mega-fail obit of John McCain and see how they still apply here:
Assume everything is wrong. Fact check accordingly: This one still works wonders here, especially up at the top of this thing. The date he entered the service, his rank and the date of his marriage are all fact-based items that could easily have been checked against a dozen sources or digital documents. As noted in the McCain piece, when a person takes on a particularly important level of distinction in the world, newspapers like the NYT will usually start an obituary file for that person, so this thing has been on hand for a while.
That said, who knows who actually wrote that first draft of it or to when it was last reviewed? You shouldn’t grab something out of an old file and figure, “Well someone wrote it so it must be right” any more than you would grab an unmarked pill bottle out of a stranger’s medicine cabinet and figure, “Well, I’m sure a couple of these will probably help my headache.” As much as we venerate the “golden era” of the press, which consisted of a lot of typewriters clicking, lead-type machines and the concept of smoking indoors, those folks were people, just like us. They could have screwed up, just as easily as we can.
How you state something matters: When I taught sports writing, I provided students with statements to prove true or false and two of my favorites were:
- “In the Open Era, which runs from 1968 to present, the person holding the most Wimbledon singles titles is Roger Federer with eight wins.”
- “The team with the most NFL championships is the Pittsburgh Steelers, winners of six Super Bowls.”
The first one is something half of the students get wrong because they look up Federer, see he won eight singles titles, see no one above him on the list of winners for men and say it’s true. However, the word “person” isn’t synonymous with “men.” The athlete (or person) with the most is Martina Navratilova, who won nine singles titles. The second one is wrong because the Green Bay Packers won 13 NFL titles (most of them in the pre-Super Bowl era), so even thought Steelers have more Super Bowls, the Packers have more titles.
The line in the obituary for Lugar that got some criticism falls along these lines. Lugar pushing for something didn’t mean it encountered heavy resistance. That’s probably at least part of the problem associated with the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program correction, although I’m not entirely sure how they missed by more than a decade.
Beware of “-est” statements: The obit’s correction didn’t have any of these errors, which was the case with McCain’s, but that might have just been a fortunate bounce, given the use of “-est” statements:
His greatest legacy, though, remains his work toward reducing the threat of nuclear arms.
Security was upgraded at nuclear weapons sites, at a time when the greatest fear was that a terror group would take advantage of the chaos in Russia or in one of the former Soviet states and buy or steal a weapon.
Friends said that this was Mr. Lugar’s most significant exposure to geopolitical thinking, and probably the single greatest source of his fascination with foreign policy.
In these statements, the writer’s good luck had him attempting to quantify things that could not be accurately quantified, such as a “greatest” fear” or “greatest source.” People can quibble with those. In the case of the McCain obit, calling the fire on the Forrestal the “deadliest” incident could be measured (and proven wrong, as it was).
As a word of warning, you need to make sure that you have something nailed down perfectly before you issue an “-est” statement. The “deadliest” attack. The “longest” game. The “greatest” comeback. Those things need to be quantified and verified. Any time you see an “-est” in a story you are editing or you include one in a story you are writing, make absolutely sure you are correct.
Ask for help: One of the many benefits of newsrooms is the presence of other people who know stuff. You might worry that asking for help or having someone look over your should could make you look stupid or weak. However, what’s a worse crime: Looking dumb in a newsroom (and spoiler alert- you won’t look like that when you ask for help) or looking dumb in the general public? If you don’t know something, ask. It really works.