Saturday, October 16, 2010
WALLA WALLA - In my 40-some years as a member of the Union-Bulletin's sports staff, the criticism directed against my profession that stings the most is that we make errors in 48-point type and correct them in agate.
No doubt because it's true.
The U-B is not unique in this practice, of course. Every newspaper I know of corrects its mistakes in similar fashion.
But every once in a while, something winds up in the paper that is so misleading that a simple correction doesn't seem good enough. And one of those instances occurred in last week's U-B when it was reported that Waitsburg-Prescott's first-year Class 2B varsity soccer team upset a Mac-Hi varsity squad that is annually regarded as one of the best Class 4A programs in the state of Oregon.
The 15-inch story, topped by a four-deck headline, appeared on one of the inside pages of the Oct. 6 sports section and proclaimed in its lead that W-P defeated Mac-Hi 5-1 the previous afternoon in a battle of unbeaten boys soccer teams.
Only trouble is, it was the Pioneers' junior varsity team that suffered that defeat. Not a single member of Mac-Hi's varsity squad participated in the game.
But that fact wasn't made clear by W-P assistant coach Bart Baxter, who reported his team's victory to the U-B via a telephone call Wednesday morning.
As soon as the U-B was aware of the mistake, it published a correction - five lines of 10-point type - on the first inside page of the A section in Thursday's edition. Not everyone in Milton-Freewater saw the correction, however, and some of them called the U-B sports desk to inquire about how a mistake of this nature could possibly happen.
While the U-B clearly met its obligation to readers by publishing the correction, I viewed the situation as an opportunity to not only set the record straight for all to see but also to shine a light on one of the pitfalls that reporters navigate dozens of times each and every week that they're on the job.
That is, understanding and trusting news sources.
Baxter, who has taken on the responsibilities of reporting W-P matches to the U-B for his head coach, Lance Hamilton, who lives in the Tri-Cities, to his credit admitted he was not as forthcoming as he should have been in phoning in results of that match in Milton-Freewater.
"I was aware that it was Mac-Hi's junior varsity," Baxter said in a telephone interview last week. "But it was a varsity match for us, and I think that's where the miscommunication (took place)."
Baxter said that he realized his mistake when he saw the story in print the following day.
"As I was reading I thought, ‘There will probably be some (angry) people (in Milton-Freewater),'" Baxter said. "We all feel bad about the story. And from now on, I am more specific."
The U-B is not without a measure of fault in the matter.
Considering the magnitude of a reported Waitsburg-Prescott victory over a soccer powerhouse such as Mac-Hi, the reporter who took Baxter's call probably should have heard alarm bells ringing. A simple question - was this Mac-Hi's varsity team, or perhaps its jayvee squad? - would have been in order.
But the U-B sports staff has undergone significant change in the last 10 months. And two of the three full-time members of the staff are entirely new to this area.
As con man Harold Hill proclaims in Meredith Wilson's The Music Man, "You've Got to Know the Territory." But that only comes with time.
As it turns out, one of the U-B's newcomers fielded Baxter's call, and not being told otherwise, wrote the story as if it was a varsity match for both parties concerned.
And the error was not caught in the editing process, as well.
By now, this misunderstanding is history, as old as yesterday's news. Mac-Hi's talented soccer team is still undefeated, and Waitsburg-Prescott, with a young squad that includes just four seniors and a trio of juniors, is quickly making a name for itself in Washington's Class B ranks.
But there are lessons to be learned here.
For reporters, it's obvious. Never be afraid, or too busy, to ask the extra question that clarifies a story. And keep your nonsense detector on high alert.
For news sources, be straightforward in parsing out your information. And don't attempt to take credit where credit's not due, because sooner or later you'll be found out.
And for readers, continue to maintain high expectations, but at the same time understand that mistakes will be made. They are as much a part of this business as is the Pulitzer Prize.