During the past nearly 29 years in journalism, I’ve apologized for plenty of errors that appeared in print, most of them my own fault.
One that will forever stick at the top of my memory and still makes me wince was in 1992, when I wrote a story about a court case in Wilkes County, N.C., and not only didn’t spell the assistant district attorney’s name correctly, I called her by the name of a defense attorney I used to write about at my previous job in Florida. My only defense: Both have a first name that starts with B. How do you adequately apologize for that? As soon as I saw it in print I knew it was wrong, but the whole previous evening as I read and re-read the story, I missed it.
During my first few months as editor here in Lenoir in 2013, the News-Topic repeatedly called Lenoir Mayor Joe Gibbons either Joe Gibbs or Bob Gibbons, despite the fact that he clearly is neither a former coach of the Washington Redskins nor his own brother. I edited every one of those stories and never noticed the errors, consumed as I was with things that were not the names of locally known people, so I apologized at a city council meeting, and while he accepted the apology he did not appear amused. Who could blame him? This qualifies as falling under the definition of “getting off on the wrong foot.”
However, while I can say that the headline that appeared at the top of the News-Topic’s sports page last Sunday was fairly egregious, and I wish it had never happened, I can’t apologize for it, as at least one reader has demanded.
The headline was on an Associated Press story about the North Carolina Tar Heels defeating the Indiana Hoosiers in the NCAA Tournament, but it got the teams reversed: “Indiana beats N.C., 101-86, in Sweet 16.”
Now, as a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I maintain there are actually two errors in that headline, because you can abbreviate the school’s name as UNC, Tar Heels or, if pressed for space, just Heels, but never N.C. That particular error, however, has drawn no one’s notice.
As soon as I saw the headline, I guessed what had happened, and I was correct. The copy desk was short-staffed in both news and sports, and on deadline a page designer who didn’t usually handle sports was pressed into service and while juggling multiple pages and trying to move on to the next deadline got the score right but reversed the order of the teams, even though the story under the headline was correct.
Such things are supposed to be caught in the proofreading stage, but no matter how apparent an error is, your brain sometimes makes you see something you want to see instead of what’s in front of you, especially when you are in a hurry. That’s how the East Oregonian, the newspaper in Pendleton, Oregon, ran a sports headline last June declaring, “Amphibious pitcher makes debut,” on a story about Pat Venditte, a relief pitcher for the Oakland A’s who actually is ambidextrous, meaning he can pitch with either hand, not amphibious, meaning he can live both on land and in water.
I have no hesitation about running corrections on factual errors that could cause harm/insult or embarrassment or confusion, but no one seemed confused by the “Indiana beats N.C.” headline — we got tons of phone calls telling us it was wrong. The only people embarrassed were the ones who work at the News-Topic. That leaves harm, so I’ll make this pledge:
If UNC Coach Roy Williams has been collecting newspaper headlines to paper his office with, and our bad headline left a gap that has him lying awake at night tossing in his bed, or he actually feels harmed, I will drive to Chapel Hill myself and apologize. I’ll even run laps around the Dean Dome.