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Writing


Jim Stasiowski

The proper context
for handling complaints

“To make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe,” Carl Sagan says.

OK, so Carl is more articulate than I, but whenever I hear complaints that a newspaper story used a quotation (or other element) “out of context,” I like to remind critics that for anything to be used “in context,” we would have to start each story with the big bang, then include all of history up to the time of the events in the story.

So it’s common for us to be accused of writing “out of context” stories because, yes, perfect context is impractical. Still, when we hear that criticism, we are quick to defend ourselves.

Here, let’s drop back and drop our defenses. Let’s give “out of context” a fair hearing.

I fielded a call from an irate reader who opened by insisting we run a retraction. (Memo to irate readers: Demanding a retraction is an almost certain to provoke editor defensiveness. Better, dear readers, to start with, “I wish to talk to you about a story that I found misleading.” Now back to this particular irate reader.)

Because I had edited the story she was calling about, the hair stood up on the back of my neck.
Her point, delivered in full screech, was that a specific detail was missing from the story.

I froze.

When I edited the story, I had added some detail. As the woman was castigating me, I realized that I had left out something that would have given a fuller account of a situation.

So, I was in the position of defending the story – none of which was incorrect – while at the same time realizing I could have done better.

I acknowledged to the woman that the left-out detail would have been valuable, but I pointed out that a retraction, or even a correction, would have been overkill and could have the opposite effect from what she desired, that is, it could have confused readers into thinking that the story was incorrect rather than lacking in full detail.

But the incident stuck with me. It made me relearn something I never should have forgotten: When an editor tries to improve a story, he or she should not rely on only easily remembered background details.

I actually thought I had been diligent. In the course of my editing, I went back to previous stories for specific dates and actions. But I had forgotten that one detail, and I didn’t notice it in any of the stories I researched.

Probably that detail was in at least one of the previous stories. But sometimes, in both newsrooms and in the lives we lead outside work, we see only what we choose to see. That, I think, is what happened to me.

In the crush of the many stories we publish, avoiding such situations is difficult, but here are a few thoughts that might help:

First, the story I’m talking about had been one that kept developing for at least a year. Yes, I had edited most of those stories, which is the reason I thought I had enough knowledge to add some material. But really, reporters need to be the first line of defense in such situations. I should have pre-coached the reporter: “Please make sure you give a clear, comprehensive wrap-up of the history behind this story.”

Second, I also should have consulted with the reporter after I added the material. She was extremely close to the story, and I think if I had said, “I added X, Y and Z,” she would have said, “OK, but if you’re going to do that, be sure to … (whatever).”

Third, no editor or reporter should rely solely on memory to add detail. I know of countless times in which I’ve been 100 percent certain of a fact, and yet I was proven wrong.

Fourth, treat each reader criticism as an opportunity to look inside what we do and how we do it. Even a loud critic demanding something we’re not going to do has an interest in our newspapers, and that’s something we should not dismiss lightly.

I was defensive with the irate caller for the very reason we almost always become defensive: The gap in the story was my fault, and I didn’t want to admit it. That her criticism triggered my introspection made her call worthwhile.

THE FINAL WORD: A sign of worldwide uncertainty is that the verb “to roil” is being used a lot more than ever before.

It is an extremely useful verb, meaning to stir up, to rile. You can see how it fits today, with the turmoil over Britain’s Brexit vote, the continuing, perplexing conflict with ISIS, and the difficulties facing the Republican Party in light of Donald Trump’s ascendance.

I just hope “roil” doesn’t lose its effectiveness through overuse, the way “to share” has become an unnecessary but extremely popular synonym for “to tell a story.”

Writing coach Jim Stasiowski welcomes your questions or comments. Call him at (775) 354-2872, or write to 2499 Ivory Ann Drive, Sparks, Nev. 89436.

POSTED 7/21/16

 

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