I was a 23-year-old reporter on my first reporting job at the Enquirer-Journal in Monroe, N.C. Each day, the editor would sort the news releases and dole out those that related to each reporter’s coverage area. Because there were only four of us, our coverage area was expansive. We reporters evaluated whether the release was worth a few paragraphs or a full story.
The Council on Aging fell into my arena, and it was holding some event involving the American Association of Retired Persons.** The event wasn’t worth much, but the Enquirer-Journal was a community paper, and we filled it with community news. Besides, I liked the executive director, and she had given me some good story tips so I wrote a three-paragraph story on the event.
No good deed goes unpunished.
I gave it to the editor; this was precomputerization — we typed on paper and hand-delivered the finished stories. He sent it through and it was published three hours later (afternoon paper). I went off to cover my beat.
When I got back to the office, the receptionist gave me a stack of pink “while you were out” telephone messages and said, “you sure stepped into a hornet’s nest.” Given that the receptionist was also owner of the paper and the mother of the publisher, I was alarmed.
I shuffled through the notes until I found a name I knew: the executive director of the AARP. I called her and identified myself.
“Why did you do this?” she asked. “I’m so furious; you’ve embarrassed us!”
Writing her comment just now doesn’t do justice to the intensity of the voice I heard on the other end of the phone. A smarter reporter would have looked at the day’s story about the AARP and figured out what kind of hornet’s nest I had stepped into, but that wasn’t me.
“What’s wrong?” Mr. Stupid asked.
“You said we were sponsoring an event with the American association of retarded persons!” she said.
Imagine Ali had just punched you in the stomach; that’s how I felt.
I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. I know I called everyone back and apologized. We published a correction.
The editor said, “You know that feeling you had when she told you the mistake you made? Well, never forget that. You should feel like you’ve been punched in the gut every single time you make a mistake. That’s how important accuracy is.”
I still do.
** The 2018 AP Stylebook notation for AARP reads: “Use only the initials for the organization formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons.” For me, it came a few decades late.