3 teachable moments in the “Antifa dressed as Trump supporters” photo caption failure

On Jan. 8, conspiracy theorists reading the Tyler Morning Telegraph in Texas probably thought they had their deepest Deep-State suspicions confirmed about the melee at the U.S. Capitol that week.

According to a photo caption that accompanied an AP picture of rioters scaling walls outside the building, “Members of antifa dressed as supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday in Washington.”

Clearly, that wasn’t the case and it wasn’t what the paper would have printed if it had a “do over.” As the readers of the Telegraph deluged the paper with questions, concerns and outrage, the journalists there scrambled to figure out what had happened. The paper’s regional editor finally tried to stanch the bleeding with a declarative tweet:

“It was not done by editorial staff. That is not the correct cutline and we are addressing it.”

In other words, “Look, we have no damned idea what this is, either, but we’re not thrilled about it, so back off until we figure out how the hell this happened and if we need to fire someone.”

On Inauguration Day, the paper published an editorial that outlined what happened, how it happened and what happens next. Of all the revelations the paper put forth, here was the least shocking one to me:

How did this happen? To the best of our belief, it was a joke taken literally. We found that no staff member acted in a malicious manner to deliberately put misinformation in your paper. Instead, what we found was a misguided and misunderstood joke put on the page when it should not have been.

The moment this caption started making the rounds in journalism circles, I gladly would have bet my HOUSE on the fact that this would all trace back to one chucklehead thinking they were funny and nobody in the newsroom noticing until everyone else on Earth started to notice it.

This isn’t the first time this has happened, nor will it be the last. I have a manila file folder or three just THICK with screw ups like this, where someone punched down something in a hurry or with a taint of dark humor or both, and it found its way to the general public. The one that still makes the rounds in many journalism classes is the “Inexperience Faces Green Wave Soccer” debacle that we detailed on the blog a while back.

However, to help you learn how best to avoid being the next in the never-ending parade of cautionary journalism tales, consider these three pieces of advice:

IF YOU DON’T WANT IT TO SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY, DON’T TYPE IT: The rule in broadcast is that you treat every mic like it’s a hot (or live) mic, so you don’t accidentally start cussing on air. In most print/web media outlets the rule is to never type anything you wouldn’t want the world to see. It’s a basic rule that we tell ourselves and each other multiple times over the course of our newsroom lives and yet, for some reason, we STILL don’t listen.

Part of this is that journalists tend to think they’re funny, and to other journalists, they really tend to be. However, our audience rarely shared the “mortician’s humor” that we espouse. This is why writing a caption that includes a phrase like “Beth Jones, whose probably going to screw us over and die before this photo runs, celebrates her record-setting 103rd birthday Thursday during a party for her at the Shady Pines Assisted Living Center in Weyauwega.” isn’t going to be in our best interest, even if we’re just joking for newsroom eyes only.

Perhaps the greatest, and maybe entirely apocryphal, story of a joke gone wrong that either did or didn’t see print was one I’ve been looking for my whole life. The story I’ve heard was that an Ohio-based paper either nearly ran or short-printed a paper with a brief at the bottom of a local-section rail that had the headline: “Easter Services Cancelled.”

The body copy was one line: “They found the body.”

Another part of it is that we use humor as a coping mechanism. Between the low pay, long hours and general insanity we cover every day, it’s a miracle we’re not more damaged than we are. Somewhere between deciding if we should use active voice in describing a massive interstate pile up and answering the 194th phone call of the night where we have to explain that, no, it’s not a conspiracy that the “TV section” wasn’t in your paper this week, people crack.

They also crack when they’re trying to make a headline fit in an impossible hole or cram 20 inches of copy in a 5-inch hole. Thus, a quick note of “Cut the shit out of this dumbass councilman’s quote” sent back to the reporter or a filler headline of “Woman’s vagina outperforms clown car” on news feature about a family of 20 kids  seems like a good idea a the time until it shows up in black and white the next day.

The lesson here is a simple and yet seemingly impossible one: If you don’t want to get in trouble for doing something purposefully stupid, don’t do that purposefully stupid thing.

BEWARE OF TWO INCHES OF WATER: Wayne State University professor and copy desk legend Fred Vultee was fond of the saying, “You can drown just as easily in two inches of water as you can in the Pacific Ocean.” His point was that errors, libel and general stupidity could just as easily occur in the smallest piece of copy as it can in the largest one.

What I have found in collecting stupid mistakes over the years is that this mantra holds water. (Sorry… I had to…)

Rarely was it the sprawling investigative story that accused powerful people of unspeakable acts that led to the worst problems. It was usually the relatively innocuous brief, the simple caption or the run-of-the-mill meeting story that created massive uproar.

The “Green Wave” story is just one of the many where someone inserted a fake lead or a side-glance comment. I have photo captions that note “this lady might be dead so we might want to crop her out” as well as a photo of a basketball team that refers to an unknown player as “Some Fucker.”

This is why it’s important to avoid screwing around with small copy and to also read ALL copy with the same level of concern. The first part is easy to manage while the second part can feel almost impossible much of the time.

I know that when it came to a story we ran accusing a student of trying to make ricin, everyone in the newsroom went through that story like our lives depended on it. That photo caption about the Environmental Club’s recruitment drive? Not so much.

Still, knowing the most damage can occur in the smallest places with the least amount of obvious concern should motivate all of us to dig in a little harder on these things.

TRUST IS HARD TO BUILD, BUT EASY TO DESTROY: The only real currency we have as journalists is our credibility. We use it to buy trust from our readers. It takes years to build up that accumulation of credibility and it must be used judiciously because it’s precious and once it’s spent, we might not get any more.

I don’t know how trusted the Telegraph was before this incident, but it essentially blew through whatever stash it had and went into debt on this one. And, for what?

The paper’s editorial outlines a series of safety valves that it either put into place or reinforced in the wake of this disaster-bacle. It also provided a great amount of transparency in explaining EXACTLY what happened in awkwardly painstaking detail for its readers. This was an attempt to start rebuilding its credit at the bank of trust.

It also implored its readership to hang in there and not judge the whole product and its entire history on the basis of one really dumb thing. Unfortunately, that might not be very easy, given that we tend to remember people, places and things based on the best or worst thing they’ve done.

It’s why if you ask any football fan what they know about David Tyree, they’re going to say “Helmet Catch,” while the name Jackie Smith will have them saying, “Bless his heart, he’s got to be the sickest man in America.” That said, Jackie Smith is a Hall-of-Fame tight end, while Tyree played 83 total games in an undistinguished six-year career. The best or the worst thing usually sticks.

It’s unclear to what degree the paper will be able to recover, but the fact that it HAS TO do so and because of something THIS DUMB is what really makes this situation sad. If nothing else, it’s a good reminder that we need to treat the public’s trust in our work with true appreciation each time we ply our trade.

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