Monday, May 12, 2008

Genuinely bizarre correction

This one, brought to public attention by the indefatigable Regret the Error, is worth a little attention from the editor's perspective. Not because it could have been caught on the desk -- that might happen with a genuine fact-checking system, but it's hard to imagine in a newspaper environment. At a guess, I'd say it's another case of a reporter letting a narrative -- a story about how things ought to be -- get in the way of the data. In this case, we get not just misplaced data, but wrong data of stunningly clueless proportions.

Have a look at the correction. The article said its subject was gay, and he isn't*. This does appear to be a case in which we need to repeat the error, not to mention offer a bit of explanation of how such a blunder could have been made. Do we seem to fall a bit short there too, though?

The reporter misunderstood the name of his partner -- that sounds like more than just your average Chris/Robin/Stacy confusion (which, to be picky, would call for "the reporter assumed an ambiguous name was gender-specific"). What does it mean? Source said "Eugenie" and reporter heard "Eugene"? Source said "Barb," but he's from southeastern Virginia, so reporter heard "Bob"? Source said "Elizabeth" and reporter heard "Baldrick"?

... and misinterpreted references in the conversation. Right. I think we've all watched enough situation comedies to reconstruct this one at home. But reporting (unlike writing sex-identity comedies) isn't a craft of creating ambiguity. It's supposed to be a craft of reducing ambiguity.

... and incorrectly assumed Graber to be gay. That should be embarrassing enough, but there's more. The story didn't just assume the subject is gay, it built a central myth around that assumption:

As second-generation Jewish immigrants, Graber's parents were frugal and had worked their way into the upper middle class by running pawn shops. Becoming a psychotherapist and living openly as a gay man, Graber had challenged many of their expectations.

So it's not just a false assertion about his sexual orientation. It's a claim about how that orientation affected his relationship with his parents. And if nothing else in this silly piece-of-feature-fluff screams out for a tad bit of verification, surely that one does: "So your being openly gay was a real challenge for your parents, huh?" (I'd also have been happier with a reporter who knows how to phrase a gently leading question: "So ... how d'you spell your partner's name?") In short, this is the sort of correction that also calls for an explanation of how we're going to try not to be so bleeding stupid next time. Aside from by not running anything as vapid as this weeper about the healing joys of Drumming For The Parentally Bereaved.

* On the bright side, at least the LAT didn't say "we have no reason to believe he is gay."



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