You’ll spend 18 minutes very well if you watch the talk by Kathryn Schulz, author of “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error,” on the topic of what we learn by being wrong. In particular, it’s useful as a manager to remind yourself that different people see things differently, and your perspective might not be the best for understanding what’s going on. Or that events have changed beyond your plans, so you need to adjust. As a reporter or editor, you have to keep this in mind all the time so you don’t automatically ascribe motivations to people. As Schultz says, “It does feel like something to be wrong; it feels like being right.”
Her talk reminded me of the time I have most audibly been on the receiving end of someone assuming he was right and I was wrong. It was at the 2004 Republican National Convention, the night that Vice President Dick Cheney spoke, but the keynote speaker that night was a Democrat, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, whose speech rained fire and brimstone on the Democrats. I was there to serve as the editor for the Media General Washington Bureau staff covering the convention, and at some point as the fury of the speech became clear, the bureau chief, Marsha Mercer, looked and me, and I looked at her, and she said something like, “This is the lead, isn’t it?” There was no other way to see it, I thought. What Cheney eventually said that night was utterly expected. So Mercer wrote the story, I read it over, and I filed it. We packed up and headed out of the media area attached to Madison Square Garden, and my cellphone rang. A night editor at one of our papers was calling to ask, more or less, if we were out of our minds. “It’s the vice president’s night,” he said, and we simply should not have relegated the VP to the bottom half of the story. I wondered about it overnight and the next morning, when it was clear that almost everyone had done what that editor said we should have — led the story with Cheney’s speech. But for the next solid week, the only thing about the convention that got much discussion was Miller’s speech. I think you could make the case either way that night, but at that moment people making the different decisions felt just as sure that they made the right call and that the others were clearly wrong.
My point isn’t that Marsha and I were proved right, but that as an editor you have to remember that people have different perspectives, and even if your reporter has written a story completely opposite of how you think he or she should have, you have to understand why before you launch into a critique of what’s wrong with it.