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September 22, 2003

From Small Things, Mama, Big Things One Day Come

Big things are made up of little things, which is one reason why so many bloggers sweat the small stuff. Yes, some don't, but they either learn to fairly quickly, pass from the scene or descend into irrelevance.

Zod: No wonder it's so damn crowded in here.

Sweating the small stuff is the essence of reporting. I can't count the number of times I've had a post turn ninety degrees in my head due to a single fact check that didn't turn up the expected result, becoming something else entirely.

Other times a post has turned because simple curiosity led me down a path I didn't expect, usually due to an attempt to illuminate some dark corner only distantly related to the theme at hand.

Both of the above boil down to two principles.

1. Fact check everything.

2. Know your story

If the principles sound journalistic, it's because they are. Any blogger that has every attempted to do anything beyond diary entries or rants is a journalist, they're just not getting paid to be one.

It's not that I always adhere to the above rules, but I try to keep them in mind. It's also been my experience that each and every time I slap something together that violates or ignores one of the above, I get corrected by a reader.

And each and every time, I curse like a sailor. I frigging hate being corrected.

Now imagine what the curses would sound like if I was getting paid to do this. When nothing is on the line other than my somewhat shaky reputaton, it's annoying but no big deal. If my job was on the line, corrections would be a much bigger deal.

Now, given that, why do the news services keep producing mistakes like the following?

photo via Yahoo

Horses stand near a heavily damaged and flooded farm in Okracoke, North Carolina, September 19, 2003. Hurricane Isabel passed through the Outer Banks late on September 18. 4.5 million homes and businesses are without power from the Carolinas to New York. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

First off, it's spelled "Ocracoke," not "Okracoke." Okracoke conjurs up visions of some dark mucilaginous beverage never meant to pass the lips of man, perhaps targeted at the paste eating kindergartener niche.

Second, there are no farms on Ocracoke. What that photograph shows, assuming that it's even of Ocracoke, are the wild ponies of Ocracoke, which up until Thursday were fenced off from the rest of the island in their own 188 acre preserve. It's hardly a farm.

Given that two "facts" in that blurb are wrong, why should I trust the rest? I've not been informed. I've been confused. Bloggers at least admit error in close proximity to the original mistake. News services almost never do.

When one is paid to produce facts, is it more conducive to the bottom line to ignore or cover up mistakes than it is to admit them?

I've caught Reuters at this before, when they callously mislabled a Indian Purple Sunbird as a Blue Hummingbird, thus moving an entire family of birds into, not just a country where they are not found, but a entire hemisphere. I just wish I had thought to keep the evidence, because the original links have all decayed.

Come to think of it, that's another difference between blogdom and news services. A blogger's past is always at hand, but a news site's is Winston Smithed out of existence in little more than a week.

So, to repeat. Reuters regularly makes mistakes. Corrections and updates, if provided, are distant in time and space from the original story, even on the web. The existence of the story itself is ephemeral in nature, lasting perhaps a week or month before vanishing.

Explain to me again exactly why I'm supposed to trust them?

Update: The Reuters "Blue Hummingbird" picture can be seen here. (scroll down) Thank god The Tribune at least has no problem keeping news stories from February freely available.

Posted by Bigwig at September 22, 2003 12:37 AM | TrackBack
First time visitor to House Hraka? Wondering if everything we produce could possibly be as brilliant/stupid/evil/pedantic/insipid/inspired as the post you just read? Check out the Hraka Essentials, the (mostly) reader-selected guide to Hraka's best posts, and decide for yourself.

mmmmm, okra-coke....

Posted by: maru at September 23, 2003 04:30 PM
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