Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Inaccurate Reporting--on the Titanic circa 1912

I first saw a reproduction of this now-famous headline back when I saw the Titanic exhibit at Brucemore here in Cedar Rapids.

Ah, if only it had been true.

But it wasn't.  This was only one of the erroneous news stories from April of 1912.  There are more, aggregated by the Library of Virginia's webpage, such as this headline from London:
and, much later:

Hard to read this bad image, but it states that, among other things, Captain Smith committed suicide, a claim that was never substantiated.

The news gets it wrong?  Oh tell me it's not true!

Funny how while I'm researching this post, the little headlines at the edges of the websites ("Most Read Stories") try to get me to click on links to stories about Jonah Lehrer and Fareed Zakaria, writers who did not get it right.  They, like the 1912 story writers, above, left behind the "Values of Journalism" that I teach in my feature-writing classes--Truth, Context, Fairness, and Accuracy--in order to write the damn story.


I can relate to the pressure to get the damn story written.  And I've had to cut corners that I didn't want to cut at times because of pushy editors or a looming deadline.  Inserting misleading information or plagiarized stuff into stories wasn't the problem, thank goodness.  My problem was not re-checking and triangulating and observing and researching as much as I wanted to.

I guess it happens.  But it doesn't have to.

Instead of wringing hands and beating brows over the erroneous stories, we writers should instead be inspired by the story of how the New York Times covered this event.  Roy Peter Clark at the the Poynter Institute's website has an article that tells the story of how NYTimes editor Carr Vattel Van Anda handled the reporting on the Titanic disaster.  In a word (OK, a phrase), it was all about shoeleather reporting, talking to strangers, checking and rechecking facts, and a quiet, subdued writing style that avoided purple prose.

That Poynter story of the Times's coverage is one of the best Titanic stories out there.  And you can read the original articles and see lots of other Times Titanic stuff at the NYT Titanic page.

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