Read the writing on the backstop
Sometimes being a journalist is a lonely existence. You can quote me on that.
It’s lonely because a byline on a story is an eternal stamp, and the author accepts an everlasting responsibility for every word associated with it. It doesn’t matter who the story is about, it doesn’t matter where the facts came from, it’s the journalist’s job to present facts. A newspaper story and its writer are forever etched in print.
Journalism is even lonelier when the author makes a factual error. When a mistake appears in a newspaper, it’s the journalist who must take full responsibility because accuracy is the most important aspect of the profession. No one else is going to stand up and take the blame because by the very nature of the job, no one else should. The journalist responsible, no matter how bad they want to, can’t offer a legitimate excuse for inaccuracy. No excuse is acceptable because the journalist could have made one more phone call or looked at one more archive to get the answer.
I am the journalist dealing with that harsh reality right now. My recent mistake is gut-wrenching, and the truth hurts: The Truckee baseball team made the 3A state championships in 1998 and 1999, after I had written over and over that the Wolverines hadn’t since 1995 – the first year Truckee moved to 3A competition. To add insult to injury, two advertisements hang on the field side of the Truckee baseball field backstop, honoring the 1998 and 1999 teams.
As a reporter, every time I stepped on the field it wasn’t to read the writing on the backstop. It was to interview players and coaches, and it was during one of those postgame interviews that the false information I came to believe came from a credible source.
Again, I take full responsibility for my error, but before this incident I assumed articles are something that a journalist bounces off the public. If not one person out of many reading the same information each week speaks up, I assume that is a valid indicator of truth.
Wrong. You know what they say about assuming.
What really hurts is my mistake was made based on trust – I took someone’s word for it and trusted that lack of community reaction meant I was telling the truth. For nearly a month I printed the Truckee baseball program’s false absence from a 3A state championship. Not once did any reader or community member stand up and say, “Hey, you’re wrong. The 1998 and 1999 team made it, ya imbecile.” Nope. Not until the information appeared in a gigantic headline on May 26 did I get a letter from a former player and two phone calls concerning the issue.
I repeat, I point the finger at no one. Just me. I take full responsibility for what I print under my byline, and I should. I wouldn’t be a morally sound journalist if I didn’t. I learn lessons every day at the Sierra Sun and will continue to do so. But a newspaper is just as much the property of a community, and a community can be just as proud of it as the people that work to create it. That being said, it is a community’s responsibility to call a mistake in the newspaper if they see it. Never let it slide because it’s buried in the story because the next thing you know, its right there in a 50 or 60-point headline and now Matt Brown – the sports staff – is eating his own words.
I am a perfectionist when it comes to the sports page. Every time I make a mistake, no matter how minor or irrelevant, it nags me. I think about it until the next issue comes out. But this one I will always remember. If I ever have a sports staff working under me, they will hear me say over and over, “Never take someone’s word for it. Go through 50 years of archives if you have to, and look at the backstop!”
Covering high school sports
After two covering high school sports for two seasons, I have a few things I would like to say to players, parents, coaches and the rest of the community:
– Keep in mind that the coverage is for the kids. This may be the last time they have a chance to be in the newspaper pertaining to an athletic achievement. So coaches, please fax in the results after every sporting event. Even if the Sierra Sun wasn’t at the event, a story can be produced from a page of results.
– Photos. Anyone is urged to take photos at the events, and the most efficient way to get them to the Sierra Sun is through e-mail. High-quality photos are the only way to make it look good in print.
– Pointing out mistakes: If you see a mistake in the paper, let us know. If the paper gets it wrong in a story you can prevent them from getting it wrong in a headline down the road.
– Some sports are easier to cover than others, whether it has to do with location of the event or the nature of the game. The Sierra Sun has one photographer shooting for four reporters. Community assistance is always welcome, even if a parent can write unbiased articles or take photos.
– People, not just athletes, usually get in the paper because they did something really good or really bad. Think about it. This is especially true in sports. Not everyone on the team can be mentioned in every article.
Matt Brown is the sports editor for the Sierra Sun.
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Students frustrated at the cancellation of sports waved signs and delivered speeches at a Truckee High School protest in an attempt to return to the field this year.