We've all made mistakes, and hopefully learned from them. This article gives you a chance to learn from the mistakes of others.
One of the awkward things about working in media is that your mistakes tend to wind up being displayed for the entire world to see. When an accountant makes a mistake, she winds up with two columns of numbers that don't add up. But when a journalist has mental slip, he winds up with a headline that proclaims to the world: "Boys cause as many pregnancies as girls" or "Blind workers eye better wages" (actual headlines).
We've all made mistakes, and a number of EPA members have stepped forward to own up to some of their own goofs. We have to learn from the mistakes of others, for we won't possibly live long enough to make them all ourselves. In that spirit, what follows is a collection of "The Worst Mistake I Ever Made" stories submitted by EPA members. The names have been omitted to protect the guilty.
- I was the editor of a startup magazine, and we operated on an extremely small budget. This meant that I often served as editor and as senior writer. For one issue, I wrote a story about a prominent business leader. Even though he was well-known nationally and even though I had mountains of background information, I managed to misspell his last name throughout the article. Worse, no one caught it. In addition to several members of our staff (who weren't professional editors), the article had been proof-read by two freelance copy editors. Neither of them caught the error. When the mistake was discovered, I wrote a personal note of apology to our team and another one to the business leader. We also ran a correction and apology in the next issue of the magazine. The mistake served as a reminder to me and to my freelance editors that you can't take any detail for granted. Don't assume that the writer knows. In fact, assume that he/she took a guess. Look it up. Double check. Further, we added a fact-checking step in our process. Once an article was approved, we faxed it to the appropriate people. We made it clear that we were looking for them to check facts only, not to make suggestions on the writing or the content. Seldom did we have a source request changes that we deemed inappropriate. In addition to catching errors in fact, they very often added clarity to the article. This proved to be an effective but inexpensive solution.
- Here's a mistake I nearly made, but avoided at the last minute. An evangelistic outreach featured former Minnesota Viking Jeff Siemon, who now operates a Christian apologetics ministry. His name was so familiar to me that I didn't think anything of it, and it was only when I read it aloud that I realized it might be better not to use the headline: "Men's breakfast features Siemon."
- In my daily newspaper days I had a situation involving a rabbi-turned-evangelist who claimed that his attempt to disprove the New Testament led to his conversion to Christianity. Questions raised by the Jewish community in response prompted a year-long investigation of the evangelist, filled with sources who wouldn't go on the record, but who tantalized me with various stories which cast a shadow on his personal background. When I asked the minister about the stories, he offered no explanations, and said the Jewish community was using me to hurt his ministry. The Jewish community he supposedly served denied that he ever worked there, but several years later two members admitted that he had worked there briefly before being fired. I called Israel looking for the rabbinical school he attended but with no success, but the evangelist explained that schools open and close frequently. Some things seemed fishy, but there was no smoking gun. Later when a church booked the evangelist, I took it upon myself to issue a friendly "believer to believer" warning to the pastor who had invited him. The pastor was unmoved, and accused me of trying to trick him into producing a "gotcha" story. I went so far as to loan my file to the pastor -- and that was my fatal error. When my editor learned of this, he demanded the return of the file and threatened to fire me, but settled for six weeks probation. The editor explained, "We gather information to print the news for all readers. It's immoral to do anything else with it. It's a violation of trust to gather information for private use." I learned that when a reporter's gut tells him that something is amiss but he can't prove it, then it is old-fashioned gossip to repeat it. I may suspect someone is a hypocrite fleecing the flock, but it's wrong to point the accusing finger without a fistful of facts. A telephone call may be appropriate, but only to explain that a story won't appear either as an announcement or an in-depth story because the reporter can't verify some information. The best reporter's response, however, is to keep digging until that one person steps forward and provides the missing piece or pieces.
- It didn't happen to me, but the publication released by my friend's large college church (2000+) announced the names of the singles' group's male and female representatives for the "pubic relations committee" instead of the public relations committee. I believe my friend was responsible. (A solution to this would be to remove the word "pubic" from your spell-checker's dictionary, but I'm not sure how to accomplish this in Word. If anybody knows, send info to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
- Our company was hired to book media in Chicago for a Benedictine monk who had authored a new book. We did what we thought was solid media list-building to target local radio, TV and print. Once we began follow up calls, however, I realized my research was not quite thorough enough. The following conversation with a local editor reporter reveals my ignorance: "I'm calling to see if you're interested in interviewing Father X while he is in Chicago. You recently received information about his new book, and I think your paper would be a good fit." The editor said, "Really? Is the priest gay?" I was shocked by this apparent jump in logical thinking, and said that no, the priest wasn't gay. "Do you know much about our paper?" I was asked, and I realized I didn't. "I know you publish a weekly newspaper covering the Chicago area," I said lamely. The editor gently replied, "We're a gay and lesbian publication for Chicagoland. So unless the priest is gay, we're probably not interested in an interview." The editor pitied me for my ignorance, and since I won't be representing any gay/lesbian authors soon, I don't have to worry about my reputation. I just have to finish wiping the egg off my face. Lesson learned? Know the publications I'm pitching!
- One time in our March/April issue I included a piece on St. Patrick (always keeping an eye on the calendar you know). Our source was a guy who travels America dressing up as St. Patrick and basically telling the St. Patrick story. We included a list of misconceptions: Patrick didn't drink green beer, he didn't drive snakes out of Ireland and, we said, he wasn't Catholic. We were bombarded with mail from our Catholic readers and so was the source we named. As it turned out, our writer had misunderstood the source who was only saying that Patrick wasn't canonized in the Catholic church because there was no canonization process at the time. How dumb could I have been. St. Patrick not Catholic, come on! Needless to say, we corrected our error in the next issue and I have since greatly expanded my knowledge of Catholicism and my healthy suspicion of what comes across my computer screen.
- Hands down the worst mistake I've made was absent-mindedly replacing our organization's address with my home address! Fortunately it was in a place not necessarily geared towards response. I simply brought the few pieces of mail I received into work.
- My worst mistake ever involved a group of stories on domestic violence in the church. We were referred to a woman whose husband had been a batterer, and she and her husband agreed to talk on the condition that we change their names in the story. As editor, I went so far as to not even know their identity myself; only the staff writer knew who they were. That's where I went wrong. The staff writer turned in the piece, then left for a vacation. I assumed she had changed the names. She assumed I would change the names. The story ran with the couple's real first names. The woman was horrified. We actually wound up printing the story again with different names so she'd have something to show her husband -- it was her idea, and we were desperate to do anything we could in the area of damage control. I learned two lessons from this. First, don't assign sensitive stories to people who are leaving on vacation. Second, no matter what the story is, the editor shouldn't be "out of the loop."
- I publish a special issue magazine that we also use as a general information piece. On the table of contents page, I listed our board of directors with the header "Board of Directors." Underneath, I listed our staff with the header "Board of Directors." I had copied and pasted the header to match the format, but I forgot to correct the wording. This was a 10,000 copy four-color publication that we'll use for the next couple of years. We sent half of them back to the printer who created a white-on-black sticker over the section (6" high by 2" wide) with the corrected "Staff" listing. It turned out better than I would have imagined, and when the board members change or staff change, it'll be easy to update. Still, the discovery left me with an immense feeling of nausea on a project that I had been extremely proud of.
- Once I interviewed a woman who had a ministry of sending medical supplies overseas. During the interview she talked about her troubled childhood. First she talked a little about her relationship with her dad. Then, a few seconds later she said, "And the very one who was supposed to be providing for me was abusing me." I assumed--that's the key word--that she meant her father was the abuser, and I wrote the article that way. The article was to appear in a local Christian newspaper. I submitted the article and eagerly awaited its publication. A few days later, by the grace of God, I reviewed my interview notes and realized that the woman had never actually said who the abuser was. I decided to call her and make sure, and she said that the abuser was not her father but their landlord! I called the associate editor at the newspaper and was assured that the article would be changed so the dad wouldn't be named as the abuser. About a day or so before the newspaper went to press, I called the editor just to make sure that the change had been made. He hadn't heard about the problem! He fixed it, but my faulty assumption could have resulted in some serious damage to the woman and her family. The lesson I learned is this: if the person doesn't spell out everything, I can't assume that I know what is meant. I need to make the person spell it out.
- Before I went overseas as a missionary, I worked at a Christian publishing house. This job exposed me to the world of printers and printing, so when I joined the home staff of a missions agency, I was a logical choice to work in the communications department. My new job came as the missions agency was moving its headquarters, and the move required that we print new stationery, reflecting the new address and telephone number. It had been years since I had worked with match prints, blue lines, and screens. At any rate, I ordered 50,000 sheets of the new letterhead, reasonably certain that I had covered all the bases. Perhaps you can imagine my chagrin when the shipment arrived: instead of a rich, full red on the logo, there was a sickly, mild pink. This came about because I had supplied the printer with a copy of the logo intended for use in one-color applications; what in two-color applications was printed 100 percent red on top and 100 percent black below was printed in one-color applications as 50 percent black on top and 100 percent black below. I had completely forgotten this simple principle of printing, and ended up with what was for me an embarrassing situation. Budget constraints dictated that we use the misprinted letterhead, so my mistake was obvious for quite some time.
- Many years ago when I worked on a national Christian magazine we ran a piece of fiction in which one character exclaimed, "O Good!" However, we dropped an "o" out of good. For our magazine this was a disaster. Fortunately we discovered the mistake ourselves as soon as the magazine came off the press, so the editor went to the office of the head of our organization to confess and ask for forgiveness.