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DEBRA HALE-SHELTON: The inevitability of mistakes

by Debra Hale-Shelton | December 1, 2019 at 2:01 a.m.

Anyone working in journalism for as long as I have is bound to have a few mistakes that made their editors' eyes roll. The good news is that such journalists can also probably recall a few stories that never made the news, often for good reason.

I'll begin with the latter situation.

Several years ago, while reporting for this newspaper, I called a university president's cell phone. Within seconds, I realized I was an unknown third party listening to a conversation between the president and another man--perhaps a prosecutor.

To this day, I do not know the other man's identity. But the conversation was such that I thought I knew who he was, primarily because of the nature of the conversation and the man's voice, which sounded familiar.

I listened briefly, then quietly hung up because of my conscience, the fear of getting caught, or perhaps both. In that short time, though, I thought I had learned the name of another potential target of a then-ongoing criminal investigation. I don't know if I was right or wrong. I do know that this person was never charged with a crime and that I never wrote a word about the conversation.

Another time, a source told me that a prominent public official would be resigning the next day. The source wanted to remain anonymous--meaning I had to find a second source to confirm the information. Try as a might, I could find no second source.

The next day came and went. The scoop I'd hoped for but couldn't get was not in the morning newspaper or any other publication. The resignation also did not happen that day but sometime later.

I do not think the source was lying to me, though he was clearly mistaken. I could speculate on what happened, but it would be nothing more than speculation. What I'm sure about is that I remain grateful for an editor's wise two-source decision--one that saved me much embarrassment.

I wasn't always so fortunate.

Consider the early 1970s when I was a rookie reporter at The Associated Press in Little Rock.

Things did not go well, for the lack of a better word, when I was working alone in the bureau one night and the Arkansas Travelers were playing a doubleheader in Little Rock. I had no editor that night to tell me what a doubleheader was.

I was in my early 20s, clueless on sports, and apparently a tad too self-confident, perhaps even arrogant, to ask anyone--including a dictionary or the stringer who called in the game details--to define "doubleheader" for me.

Somehow, I managed to write a story that combined information from two games into a single story about one game and one score. No one questioned the story until I returned to work the next day and found a frustrated supervisor's note in my mailbox.

Another time, I interviewed a funeral home employee by phone about the death of a state legislator's elderly mother.

"Now, who is this?" I asked, instead of the more specific, "What's your name and title?"

What I heard him say was "the director, Andy Owner." I asked him how to spell his surname. "O-n-e-r," he replied.

With that information, I quoted one "Andy Oner," whom I identified as the funeral home director. The next day, the funeral home called the AP to say no one by that name worked there. When I returned to work later that day, I found yet another note in my mailbox, this one asking me, "How did this happen?"

There was, of course, an imperfect explanation. It turns out "Andy Oner" had said he was the funeral home's "director and the owner." His mistake was not knowing how to spell "owner" and perhaps talking a tad too fast. My mistakes began with not asking him to spell his first name.

I do not recall the man's real name, though I'm sure it appeared in a subsequent correction.

Perhaps my third most embarrassing mistake happened after I began reporting and editing at the Chicago AP. You may recall that the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox are major-league baseball teams; the Chicago Bears, a football team. One of these three teams was playing a team in Pittsburgh.

Again, working late and alone at night, I did a quick edit of the story written by another reporter before sending it to newspapers throughout Illinois. Somehow, I ended up with an NFL team playing a baseball team. I'm not sure, but think I had the Chicago Bears playing the Pittsburgh Pirates. Or maybe it was the Chicago Cubs playing the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I soon learned to read and reread not only the stories I wrote, but also the ones I edited. I also learned that it's better to ask too many questions than not enough.

Fortunately, I now know what a doubleheader is.

Debra Hale-Shelton can be emailed at Follow her on Twitter at @nottalking.

Editorial on 12/01/2019

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