Tmatt regrets the (almost) error

rimshotlogoOur friends at Gospelcom.net are still working to repair and upgrade our comments pages, which were taken down in the midst of a tsunami of spam this past weekend. We hope to open up some of the newer posts for comments here shortly.

Meanwhile, I feel the need to make a strange kind of confession while noting the vital role that copyeditors play, a role that is only getting more important in the often confusing age of the World Wide Web.

You see, I have a commentary piece on today’s op-ed page at USA Today entitled “The media, God and gaffes” and it almost opened with a really bad error — by me. This would have been a horror on several levels, in large part because this is a column that grew out of a lecture I gave at USA Today on (wait for it) journalists making too many errors linked to religion news. That lecture, as you can imagine, grew directly out of posts on this blog.

This commentary piece, by the way, is part of the newspaper’s “Focus on Faith” series, which I am told has developed a pretty solid readership. I wonder if other newspapers should consider starting an ongoing editorial-page slot for commentary on religious and cultural issues. Anyway, here is how my piece opened:

Journalists in Washington, D.C., know how to cover protests.

At the top of the “to do” list is finding that killer quote that captures the style of the protesters and their cause. This is harder than it sounds, as illustrated by this disastrous story.

Picture this scene. A flock of Pentecostal Christians has gathered at the U.S. Capitol for yet another prayer rally about sex, abortion, family values and the public square.

“At times, the mood turned hostile toward the lawmakers in the stately white building behind the stage,” wrote The Washington Post in its coverage of the event. Then, without explanation, the story offered this on-stage quotation from a religious broadcaster: “Let’s pray that God will slay everyone in the Capitol.”

Slay what? Clearly, the reporters didn’t know about the experience that Pentecostal Christians call being “slain in the Holy Spirit,” in which they believe they are transformed by a surge of God’s power. The result was a journalistic train wreck that ended up in the book The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect.

“The problem,” wrote authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, “was that the reporter didn’t know, didn’t have any Pentecostals in the newsroom to ask, and was perhaps too anxious for a ‘holy sh-t’ story to double-check with someone afterward whether the broadcaster was really advocating the murder of the entire Congress.” This mistake made “a strong case for the need for humility” at the news desk, they said.

I won’t bore you with details of the near mistake, except to say that I misread a slightly vague passage in the book and almost attributed the “slay everybody” quote to the wrong newspaper. I had tried to check the source of the passage myself but — here’s the WWW-era warning for reporters — I (a) currently lack a lexisnexis.com password and (b) the quote I was trying to confirm seems to be hidden in archives and, thus, didn’t show up in ordinary searches. Also, I am not the first person to misread the passage involved. Thus, it was easier to find the error searching online than to find the accurate reference.

So I issue this mea culpa as a way of saying thanks to the ultra-careful copy desk at USA Today. As I tell my students, journalism isn’t rocket science, but it is a really picky line of work. This blog often chides copy desks for failing the sweat the details. This was a case where people went the extra mile and I am most grateful.

P.S. The omnipresent Amy Sullivan of The Washington Monthly sent me a private email noting another interesting mistake, when a commentator didn’t seem to realize that Protestants don’t take communion in Roman Catholic parishes. This item has, it seems, been corrected to remove a very, very offensive turn of phrase. Check out the very first comment linked to it.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Heminator

    Heh. I used to be a copy editor at USA TODAY’s Op-Ed desk. Suffice to say, you wouldn’t believe the errors that get caught. Anyway, I would also like to point out that USAT is one of the few papers that does actually fact check their op-eds. Knowing that will make you read the news a lot differently, let alone having been on the other side of the desk.