Working for quality journalism in the dog days of summer

Occasionally, journalists make errors. I once made two of them trying to correct one.

Last week, a young reporter here tussled with an obituary, noting the deceased succumbed to prostrate cancer. It should have been prostate.

Another scribe, in a tale of a jail guard gone bad who smuggled hacksaw blades inside tacos to an inmate, referred to “inmate uniforms died with coffee to look like street clothes.”

Dyed was what he meant.

Same story, a day later. A reporter noted the jail guard’s reward for delivering the blades was a bottle of “the prescription painkiller Xanax.” Not so, said a physician/reader. Xanax is a highly addictive anti-anxiety pill, the doctor said.

And, finally, a headline writer, looking for a few good words to put on top of a story about a car accident in which one died and one was hurt chose, “Rollover kills 2 in Medina County.”

Headlines are important because they are all that some people read. A good hed leads the reader into the story. One of the best ever was “Headless Body in Topless Bar.” It’s worth noting that Vincent Musetto, who wrote that stunning hed in 1982, retired July 21 after 40 years at the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post, which, Musetto quipped, was a “left-wing daily” when he started.

Speaking of Murdoch, his Fox News didn’t devote much time to Murdoch’s troubles in Britain when the phone-hacking story broke earlier this month. A study by the Pew Research Center‘s Project for Excellence in Journalism found Fox offering about three minutes a night of News Corp. coverage while MSNBC and CNN had about 16 minutes apiece.

Express-News reader Keith Gunnell wondered: “I’m trying to understand something that I think has developed into a pattern at the SA Express-News…: Reporters are filing articles with their respective editors that appear to be either deficient, grossly deficient or conveying false information. Why?

As an example, he cited Lynn Brezosky’s Wednesday piece, “Mexican soldiers sent back after crossing to U.S. side,” which reported that 33 Mexican soldiers had “inadvertently” entered the United States via the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge across the Rio Grande.

Sometimes you’re only as good as the information you receive. Brezosky, a savvy reporter, wasn’t standing on the bridge, notepad in hand, when the Mexican troops entered Texas, so she had to rely on government spokesmen for details.

And what they gave her, to me, was flippant the first day and not much better when she wrote a follow-up piece Thursday, “Need to make U-turn cited for incursion.”

As Gunnell pointed out, “the majority of the Zeta paramilitary forces are made up of former Mexican special forces troops. If that (is) accurate, then it adds to the threads of the story behind the story.”

And it’s good reason for federal spokesmen, on both sides of the border, to be forthcoming and serious when such “inadvertent” soirees occur.

Finally, Thomas Otto, a conservative fan, wants members of the paper’s Editorial Board to indicate their political leanings by revealing how they voted in the last four presidential elections.

That, Otto said, “will indicate where they’re coming from.”

What do you think? I’ll bet board members won’t lay themselves open, and I wouldn’t either if I was still on the board. Your vote is a sacred and secret privilege.

This column was originally published in the San Antonio Express-News on July 31, 2011.
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