“Just the facts, ma’am.”
Remember that famous line from Los Angeles’ Sergeant Joe Friday (played by Jack Webb) on NBC TV’s “Dragnet” crime drama?
|NBC's Dragnet - Jack Webb and Harry Morgan|
Facts count for plenty, particularly for writers.
Fact-checking may even trump proofreading, although both are key steps in good writing.
Even press pros occasionally err, printing fiction in place of fact.
In February 2012, the Madison Capital Times ran a political story, based on a news release they received. According to the story, U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI), U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), and Wisconsin State Representative Steve Nass (R-31st District) teamed up to urge the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to remove archived posters from the 2011 Madison Capitol protests.
Alas, the story was a hoax, allegedly created by a Madison political cartoonist with Photo Shop skills. But the mistaken story ran for close to 40 minutes on the Wisconsin newspaper’s website before editors discovered its fraudulence.
Internet and other pranks abound.
Urban legends, rumors, and hoaxes can put writers in hot water, unless we do our homework. Several sites can help writers confirm whether stories are fabricated or fact. These include Hoax-Slayer, Internet Hoaxes, On Guard Online, and Snopes. The best course, of course, is to go straight to the source.
Here’s a news flash: A story isn’t necessarily true, just because it appears online, in a press release, or in a widely circulated email.
Remember these headlines and panicked viral messages?
- Alligators in city sewers
- Facebook charging for use
- Grandma drying her poodle in the microwave
- LIFE Cereal’s Mikey dead from eating Pop Rocks with soda
- Microsoft purchasing the Catholic Church
- Spiders under toilet seats in restaurants
- Walt Disney cryogenically frozen
- Yearly celebrity death rumors
Although writers of every stripe may produce publications offering opinionated exaggerations with impunity, printing blatant falsehoods definitely damages credibility. It pays to check the facts before publishing.
Not long ago, I submitted a story after careful fact-checking, only to find that an editor had altered my title slightly, leading to a changed meaning that brought a few pointed readers’ comments. Here's how the title appeared upon publication:
"Former Murdoch CEO Rebecca Brooks' Horsegate Mount was No Hack"
By capitalizing “No Hack,” the editor inadvertently led readers to believe that was the horse’s name. But it wasn’t. In fact, the horse in question was named Raisa.
Every week, a certain celebrity news magazine arrives in my mailbox and bears an entire section of editorial notes to correct factual errors from the previous week’s issue. If I did not receive an annual gift subscription to this gossip rag from a relative, I would surely not subscribe.
Let’s try to keep fiction in the right department.
If I want to read fiction, I will stop at the library. I might browse the new novels section at the local bookstore or on a bookselling website. I’d be willing to be other readers feel the same way.
Any long-term writer probably has at least a few gross gaffes that elicit cringing with each recollection. What’s the worst editorial “oops” you’ve ever had? OK, don’t answer that.
Dragnet TV still
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