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Journalism 101: If Your Name Is On a Story You Own It.

Journalism 101: If Your Name Is On a Story You Own It.

One of the best parts of Twitter is the ability to interact with strangers without actually meeting them.

Yes, some of what happens on Twitter is appalling. At other times, however, folks use it to learn something.

For example, a Tweet sent to me yesterday concerned The New York Times reporters who were responsible for the smear the paper ran on Justice Brett Kavanaugh on Sunday. The excuses they offered for this soggy wad of sloppy journalism raised serious questions about how reporters do what they do. 

Zach sounded like he was genuinely interested in how journalism works:

Hey Kerry, did you read the articles you wrote after the editor changed anything? I heard the writers said they did. Of course, it was more than 24 hours to correct so the story was out a long enough time . . . I WONDER how they missed the biggest part??”

I responded almost immediately.

“I ALWAYS read my copy before it went into print. And I asked editors to let me see a final edited version of EVERYTHING…“

The more I thought about my response, the more I realized it wasn’t 100 percent true.

Shortly after I came to The Virginian-Pilot in the mid-1980s I found myself covering Virginia Beach courts. It was a busy beat, with a rash of high-profile capital murder cases. Keeping tabs on all of the legal action involved long days, lots of courtroom drama and colorful testimony.

I got back to the office one evening, turned in my story and headed home around 9. I’d been at the courthouse since early in the morning and was exhausted. The night editor said he’d edit my copy after his dinner break.

Big mistake.

I was fairly new. What I didn’t know was that this particular guy - who was talented and likable and who’s no longer with us - drank his dinner. He must have been knocking back doubles that night because he changed a critical dollar figure in my story.

I got up the next morning, retrieved my copy of the Pilot from the porch of my apartment and flipped to my story on the front of the Metro section.

Moments later, I was gasping. There it was, a glaring error. One that I knew would infuriate the lawyers in the case. I felt like an idiot.

I drove into the office in a rage, grabbed my original copy - with the correct number in it - and waited for the culprit to appear.

When he did I used language I’d never used before in the newsroom on the poor guy. I was livid.

The editor was embarrassed and contrite. He apologized profusely. He said the number I had written looked wrong, he didn’t want to bother me late at night so he changed it. He offered to call the lawyers in the case and explain that the mistake was his. 

A correction ran the next day: Due to an editing error....

That felt lame to me. If your name is on a story, you own it. I was disgusted with my lazy self for going home.

That taught me a lesson: No matter how late, a good reporter never rests until she sees the final version of her story.

After that, I almost always stuck around while my copy was being edited. If I couldn’t, I called in and asked someone to read it to me. When the newspaper went digital, staying in touch via computer became a whole lot easier. You could keep an eye on the final product in your pajamas.

OK, I was vigilant to the point of having a mild case of OCD. Truth is, I have always believed that inaccurate reporting is a mortal sin.

Which is why the half-baked slice of snark The New York Times published online Sunday - a highly selective excerpt from a book - is a journalistic abomination. 

A key piece of information - one that actually cast doubt on the premise of the piece - was omitted. The reporters neglected to tell readers that the alleged victim in this alleged incident was not interviewed and had, in fact, told friends she had no memory of it happening.

By Monday night the reporters were on TV, blaming their editor for lifting the critical sentence.

When they were asked if they’d bothered to read the piece before it went live, one of the interchangeable twits said she “thought” she had.

The duo went on to insist that as soon as they saw the omission, it was corrected.

That simply can’t be true. I was riding back from Asheville, NC on Sunday and Twitter was blowing up for hours with people pointing out that the story had left out important details. Yet it wasn’t until that night that the “editor’s note” appeared on the story.

Look, newspapers are collapsing and large swaths of the public don’t trust the press to tell the truth, so the last thing we need is a national newspaper to fuel the narrative that liberal members of the media are out to destroy their enemies.

Yet that’s what happened. As someone who spent decades in journalism, I’m embarrassed.

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