Dealing with Doubt: After Midnight

Between belief and disbelief, certainty and uncertainty, trust and distrust lies doubt. Doubt can be deliberate questioning or a state of indecision, resulting in a reassessment of what reality means or a paralyzing suspension between contradictory propositions. An uncomfortable condition, as Voltaire observed, but preferable to certainty, which is inherently absurd. Or some surprising gap stretching intellect and emotion, resulting in delight. Join us in this intriguing gray area as we prepare our Winter 2013 Doubt issue.

Dewy Defeats Truman

Harry Truman holds up a copy of the Chicago Tribune at Union Station in St. Louis, Missouri on November 3, 1948. It was a foregone conclusion that he would lose, so the Tribune ran the infamously incorrect headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.” (Photo: Byron Rollins, AP)

During the summer of 1987, when I was 19, I lived by myself in a furnished studio apartment in New Port Richey, Florida. I had come from Illinois for a newspaper internship after my sophomore year in college. I had a blast at work but spent most of my free time alone.

I’m one of six kids from a raucous Irish-Catholic family, so the solitary life was novel and enjoyable. Throughout that internship, the only time that I actually felt alone–the only time that it might have been a comfort to have my brothers nearby–was the night that I awoke in terror. I’d been thinking about a story I’d written that day when a thought drifted into my drowsy mind: I might have spelled Tom Weightman’s name incorrectly.

Weightman was the county school superintendent. I didn’t remember checking the spelling. My stomach churned. What spelling did I use? I called the main newsroom in St. Petersburg in hope of…what? That the paper hadn’t been put to bed? That I could correct the mistake? I wasn’t even sure that it was a mistake. It was late, and the paper had gone to press. My panic escalated. But the only thing worse than self-doubt was self-deception. I had to know. I got in my car and zoomed through the humid night. I unlocked the empty newsroom’s back door and got to my desk. I don’t remember how I checked my story, but I did. I had spelled it correctly. Or maybe an editor had made it right. It didn’t matter.

Journalists are taught to get it right. Getting it wrong means that you have made a factual error, and factual errors require correction. No one likes to make mistakes, and people with life-and-death jobs–doctors, cops, firefighters–probably think that a potentially misspelled name is a poor reason to have a panic attack and make a midnight run through Pasco County. But fellow journalists will empathize. We all feel the white-hot shame when an error creeps in. If my brothers had been there that awful night, I still would have felt alone. They wouldn’t have been able to help. They weren’t journalists.

The first big mistake that I made was at my college paper. I covered a faculty member’s memorial service and, inexplicably, listed the wrong day. The editor-in-chief tacked a copy onto the newsroom bulletin board with the mistake circled. Even in that bustling newsroom, I felt completely alone. And knew that I never wanted to feel that way again.

But, of course, I did. I was a prolific reporter in college, during internships and in my professional career. When you write that much, you inevitably make mistakes. I printed the wrong telephone number for a social services program. I wrote that a man accused of sexually abusing a child had made incriminating statements to police; he hadn’t. I misread a Department of Transportation document so badly that I said that a controversial road project had been brought back up for consideration. That was a doozy: not just an error in a story, but an entire story in error.

No matter what the reason was for the slip, the resulting misery was always the same. Eventually, I arrived at a strategy to stave off madness: I beat myself up for a day, then moved on. The newspaper policy of printing corrections on the front page was perversely helpful. The stronger my public humiliation was, the less I needed to beat myself up.

Given the cruel dimensions of this occupational hazard, it shouldn’t have been surprising that when salvation–in the form of the Internet and the resulting online newspapers–finally did arrive in the early 2000s, it was wrapped in treacherous packaging.

I work at the Ocala Star-Banner, which publishes both in print and online. The latter has a crucial advantage: stories can be adjusted moments, hours, even years after they’re posted. I can quickly correct a spelling, a date, a dollar amount. I can even unpublish an entire story. Transparent corrections–noting when and where adjustments are made–don’t sting like their print cousins. If anything, online corrections are admirable evidence of a reporter perpetually at work. The errant reporter’s shame need last only a moment.

Corrections page

An example of an online corrections page, appropriately from January 6, 2013 (Epiphany)

The flexible Internet also helps prevents errors from seeping into inflexible print. Since stories usually post online before the print deadline, readers and colleagues can spot problems and contact me. Both the print and online stories can be corrected long before the presses roll.

A July 2012 Newsweek cover story asked, “Is the Web Driving Us Mad?” It cited research on how prolonged Internet exposure makes people more lonely and more depressed, less connected and less focused. Perhaps it does. But as a journalist who is a maniac about getting things right, my newspaper’s Web operation makes me less lonely and less prone to depression, more connected and more focused. The digital world brings more people to the process early on, when there’s still a chance get it right. I’ll always doubt myself a little, but now I have an ally in the previously debilitating battle against time.

The treacherous side of this salvation is that the Internet poses a business challenge for newspapers. Readers are shifting from print to digital, but the majority of revenue still comes from print advertising and circulation. Unless the news business figures how to get ad dollars to follow eyeballs, traditional news organizations will continue to struggle.

I want the best of both worlds: maintaining accuracy but writing with a digital safety net, keeping print products financially viable but allowing the more forgiving online world to flourish, practicing journalism vigorously but relegating those panic attacks to the past.

As I reconcile these two worlds as a writer and editor, I also do so as a part-time journalism instructor. I teach JOU 3101-Reporting one night a week at the University of Florida. The course has tough grading standards, including 50 points off for factual errors. Many of the students have never received less than a B in their lives, but it’s not uncommon for them to flunk the first few assignments.

Most of the class time is dedicated to writing a deadline news story. I provide data sheets larded with land mines: inconsistent spellings, incorrect addresses, fuzzy facts. Terrified of making a mistake, my students check and cross-check every word and confer in panicked voices. Emotionally exhausted, they hand me their stories just before the 10 pm deadline as if offering steak to a lion. I receive late-night emails, the cyber-equivalent of my midnight run, begging forgiveness for a mistake they have–or think they have–made.

It doesn’t need to be this way. The landscape has changed considerably since my stressful college days. Today’s students will work in a digital world where accuracy is vital but errors can be quickly corrected. Perhaps the lethal grading system, where one factual error equals failure, should be ditched in favor of a more modern one: factual errors cost points, but not a fatal number. This certainly would improve morale.

Then again, nostalgia and habit aren’t the only reasons to stick with old standards. With new technology, doctors can save patients who a generation ago were doomed. But med schools would never go easy on students who couldn’t handle the basics, even though initial errors can be corrected with advanced medicines and procedures. Judges can check case law on courtroom computers. But law schools would never excuse students who couldn’t prepare a properly cited legal brief. For journalists, getting it right is as important now as in the days of hot type. Technology can eliminate crazy midnight drives but can’t teach what the panic can: this is serious and I never want to feel like this again.

The Internet, with its fast and flexible beauty, has loosened time’s unforgiving grip on me. But the midnight run through Pasco County hardened me into the kind of journalist who doesn’t need too much saving in the first place. My students will inhabit the digital world. But they will arrive there with memories, never far beneath the surface, of those panicked nights in my classroom when all they wanted in the world was just to get the story right.

Online Editor’s Notes:

  • I doubt that there’s a soul with a publishing and/or research background (and a conscience) who won’t cringe a bit while reading Jim’s piece. And while the Internet has made it easier for us online types in many ways, it’s actually made it more gut-wrenching in others. I feel slightly sick each time I push the LPR blog’s Publish button because I know that what I post will be instantly available for the world to see, not just for a single county once the presses stop rolling. And while I love being able to fix facts–not to mention those awfully awkward sentences–anytime that I please, I can’t in all cases. Our valued subscribers, who receive the posts in their electronic inboxes in near-real time, are irrevocably exposed to each “soft” launch.
  • A propos Jim’s discussion of the mixed blessings brought by the Internet, it’s worth mentioning that Newsweek merged with the news and opinion website The Daily Beast in November 2010, forming The Newsweek Daily Beast Company. In October 2012, it was announced that Newsweek would cease print publication with the December 31, 2012 issue and transition to an all-digital format, Newsweek Global.
  • A writer for Forbes took issue with the Newsweek piece as well, stating, “I’ve been spending a lot of time on the internet, you see. And it’s making me crazy. Specifically, I’ve been spending time on the Daily Beast’s website, reading a Newsweek covery story titled ‘Is The Web Driving Us Mad?’ And I can answer resoundingly in the affirmative. The web—at least this particular corner of it—is indeed making me quite mad. Lazy, alarmist pop science writing usually does.” Doubt is a reliable antidote.
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13 thoughts on “Dealing with Doubt: After Midnight

  1. OH my. Not only was my father a lifelong newspaperman (hence dedicated to Getting It Right and agonizing over occasionally Getting It Wrong, but I myself did a monthly column for THE SUN Magazine (when it still existed, under Elizabeth Large) for a number of years; among my very worst errors was really a whole tissue of errors about H. L. Mencken (my “common law godfather”who backed out of my christening saying it offended his atheistic principles) and his ACTUAL goddaughter, Tina Patterson, daughter of Paul Patterson, one of THE SUN’S biggest guns. I forget in what way I factually sinned, but it was a biggie, and it brought a furious reply from one of the relatives–perhaps Tina herself? See, there I go again, running memory and mythology as well as fact. ‘Twas my own mother who said THE SUN should fire me. Jim Ross, this is a great piece. Thank you!

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  2. Ms. Harriss, thanks for those kind words. I’m so glad you responded, because it gave me a chance to read all about you and your father and your respective work. Such a treat!

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  3. What’s a covery? See third sentence of third bullet point above. Unfortunately, I’m not as good a proofreader of my own stuff:

    >>”A writer for Forbes took issue with the Newsweek piece as well, stating, “I’ve been spending a lot of time on the internet, you see. And it’s making me crazy. Specifically, I’ve been spending time on the Daily Beast’s website, reading a Newsweek covery story titled “Is The Web Driving Us Mad?””<<

    I had screaming mad doubt this morning talking on the telephone with my boss. "Be anxious for nothing!" Nice piece, Jim.

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    • Glad you enjoyed the piece!

      I’m the online editor who published it and added the notes, so I’ll take the “covery” question. If you click on the link, you’ll see that that’s exactly what Jeff Bercovici, the Forbes staff writer, wrote. Since it isn’t kosher to edit quotations, my only alternative would have been to insert the supercilious “sic,” which I’m loath to do. Besides, I wasn’t all that sure that it was a typo given that the passage had a markedly facetious tone.

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  4. Jim-Twenty years after retiring from The Sun, I still re-play in my mind the errors that slipped by, and I can’t help but re-consider the stories I could have researched better. I think reporters are similar to ball players who have a fielding average. The only recompense is that even the great Cal Ripken, Jr. bungled a few chances–a mighty few, but enough to realize that he, like the rest of us, live with the human condition. Cold sweats come with the reporting of news, it seems. After all, we hinge our reality on the facts and getting it right, even though we know instinctively that deadlines are the cloud of our unknowing the absolute truth.

    Thanks for exposing what all first-rate journalists know by experience. There is an abiding fear intrinsic to news reporting.

    Mike Clark

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    • Thanks for this reply, Mr. Clark. For sure, the “cold sweats,” as you say, are part of the business. I tell my students this at the beginning of the semester; by the end, and usually long before, they know what I mean.

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  5. Copydesk humor: Doctors’ mistakes are in the graveyard, lawyers’ mistakes are in jail and our mistakes are on the front page.

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  6. Thank you, Jim, for the reminder of one of the main reasons I got out of the news editing biz — I was totally stressed out by the unrelenting need to get everything right (even with the online product I edited). All that self-doubt was exhausting! I certainly haven’t eliminated self-doubt from my life, but I’ve really been enjoying the freedom to make mistakes … and then to course-correct as needed.

    I understand what you’re saying here, though I can’t help but wonder about the impact of the 24/7 news cycle. Do you find that the pressure to post quickly has led to less vigilance on the part of many/some/any reporters and editors? (Of course, I’m not talking about you 😉 Once those young reporters leave school and the threat of an automatic F dissipates, does the fact that they can fix things “later” make them less likely to worry about getting the story right “now”?

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    • Hey, Michelle! Always nice to read kind words from an old friend.

      I don’t think the rush to post brings with it some relaxation of vigilance. It might seem that way, though. When we started in the business, a reporter probably had four editors reading behind him/her, plus a proofer at the very end. In the online world, as I tell my students, you may have only one editor reading behind you, at least for breaking news. The end product is more likely to have typos and such than the print story of old, though as we know even properly edited stories could (and do) have problems.

      As for what the students are like after they leave my classroom: I suspect they are less prone to terror and less manic about checking things. I tell them to keep their guard up and remain vigilant. That’s the price you pay for being a professional communicator.

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  7. Pingback: Familiar Shore | Paper Tape

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