Poison mushrooms, snow and sealt belts

Sometimes when a mistakes happen, the spotlight can get pretty sweltering.

Last week, I wrote about comparisons between newsrooms and symphony orchestras. When things are running smoothly, it sounds great. But rarely do things ever run smoothly.

I wrote last Sunday’s column a week after we had printed an incorrect version of a daily weather forecast that called for snow showers at the end of August. We printed a correction for readers — a rather light-hearted one, in fact. After all, if we can’t laugh about it, what are we to do? If anyone has a 1985 DeLoreran DMC-12, please let me know.

In my journalism master’s classes through Kent State University, we are required once per week to meet online via chat. In those classes, there are journalism folks, like myself, of varying degrees of experience from across the country. I befriended one of those online classmates who also happens to be a journalist at Newsday in New York City.

Among the class chat, we also sprinkled in our individual experiences ranging from errors to the general workings of the business. I relayed the story about the weather map gaffe that called for snow showers in August.

I read the usual “LOL” “Yikes” and “Wow” statements scrolling across my computer screen. Then, according to the icon on the screen, I saw my Newsday colleague typing a response.

” … We once ran a recipe that mistakenly called for the use of poison mushrooms. So I know what you mean,” he typed. “Last year we ran a graphic heralding the pope’s visit to NYC on our website, (ex)cept it was JPII (Pope John Paul II), who had been dead for 9 years. …”

I guess our weather goof isn’t so bad after all.

In the 1990s, the newspaper for which I worked published a news story about Susan Smith, who was convicted of drowning her children by strapping them into their car seats and plunging the vehicle into a South Carolina lake.

Aside from the subject matter, there was absolutely nothing wrong with the story — except for one, tiny little thing.

In the 1990s, newspapers were still built by hand and not designed on a computer screen. Cut and paste was something a journalist did in a composing room — and it usually involved paper, scissors, hot wax and a rolling pin. It was a real-life exercise in Tetris.

When a story’s length fell a bit short, the composing room folks would insert a “filler ad.” They’re public service announcement-type ads, not paid for by anyone, that are used to plug gaps on a page. They’re made in all the needed sizes and column widths.

Here’s where the Susan Smith story ran into some issues. Next to the story, one of the composing room folks placed a filler ad touting the advantages and safety of seat belt use.

The page went through a couple of editors and was OK’d. The next day, the phones rang off the hook (we didn’t have cell phones back then, so it was literally on a hook) from people telling us about our insensitivity.

I was just glad I wasn’t the editor.

Newsrooms have their own ways of laughing at their mistakes because, let’s face it, we all make them. Some newsrooms have a “Board of Shame” in which those mistakes are pinned onto a cork board. One newsroom I visited had such a board filled with headline errors. I won’t repeat them because, after all, we are a family newspaper.

When Jay Leno was host of “The Tonight Show,” an editor’s fear was that one of his newspaper’s headlines or stories would end up on Leno’s weekly “Headlines” segment. It became standard to say, “Fix that, unless you want to end up on Leno!”

All errors are unintentional and they happen at every news outlet, both large and small. Sometimes they occur because we may be overwhelmed on that particular day, we’re simply rushing through and not paying close enough attention, or for a variety and combination of other reasons.

We know we’re not perfect, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t try to be each and every day.


By Michael Johnson

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Reach Michael Johnson at 740-446-2342, ext. 2102, or on Twitter @OhioEditorMike.


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