Here’s a dirty little secret that reporters don’t want you to know. When writing the back story or filler for a news item, we often rely on our knowledge of a topic to flesh out a story.
While some newspapers used to boast that they fact-checked every statement before releasing a story to a waiting world, that degree of rigor has disappeared. Budgets cuts have reduced editorial staff who were once tasked with cleaning up stories, while at the same time more copy is demanded of writers at a faster pace.
Factual errors happen for many reasons. Reporters mishear or misread things, sources are misinformed, story subjects lie and other reporters try to trip you up. I am not as familiar with American media culture as I am with the British — but I have been led astray by my peers and I in turn have been less than helpful to others. And I have produced howlers that still haunt my dreams.
Often a mistake will not be caught — allowing a graceful correction in the next issue buried beneath the candle ads. But there are some topics that most reporters know not to mess with — items that are part of our collective memory, or items memorized by fanatics. Woe to he who mangles a Star Trek or Monty Python quote.
Religion News Service dropped a brick (several in fact) in its article entitled “Fifty years later, C.S. Lewis’ legacy shines in US, not his homeland”, making mistakes of fact that fans of Lewis would spot in an instant.
The article begins:
When he died on Nov. 22, 1963 hardly a soul blinked in Northern Ireland where he was born or in England where he spent most of his working life as one of the world’s greatest Christian apologists.
Clive Staples Lewis was a week short of 65 when he suffered a heart attack at his home in Oxford. The obituary writers barely noticed his demise, in part because he died on the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
British indifference to Lewis half a century ago will be examined at a one-day seminar at Wheaton College on Nov. 1, co-sponsored by the Marion E. Wade Center, the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals and Wheaton College’s Faith and Learning program.
Not much to worry about so far — save for the fact the conference was not about “British indifference to Lewis.” The circular for the conference states it will examine the “Oxford don’s influential presence within American culture. ” In other words, the conference will discuss not why Lewis has not caught on in the UK, but why he is so popular in America. There is a difference.
Dropping into the filler of this piece — where RNS gives a biography of Lewis — we see these statements.
Shattered by [his mother's] death, Lewis abandoned his inherited faith at the age of 15 and threw himself into a study of mythology and the occult. …
His conversion to Christianity was slow and laborious. Reluctantly, he fell under the influence of Oxford colleague and friend J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton, who met every Tuesday morning at a local public house in Oxford and formed a debating club called ”Inklings.” …
Tolkien and Chesterton were disappointed that their new convert turned towards the Church of England, not Rome. …
C.S. Lewis went on to write acclaimed books about Christianity — “The Screwtape Letters,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Space Trilogy,” “Mere Christianity,” “Miracles and The Problem of Pain” — the latter written after he watched his American Jewish wife, Joy Davidman Gresham, die of bone cancer in 1960.