By Patricia Graham, Brunswick News ombudswoman
Now that the new year is well underway, I’ll share with you some of my personal journalistic vexations—things I hope not to see, or to see less of, in 2016.
Errors in names, dates, phone numbers, venues, etc.
I cringe every time I see a correction for the date or the venue of an event, or the phone number to buy tickets. And every time we spell someone’s name wrong, surely they wonder what else we get wrong.
These mistakes are avoidable. There are endless demands on reporters’ time, but checking these facts is a basic aspect of the job.
“Known to police”
When police describe someone this way, I’m always left wondering what it means. If I’m “known to police,” does it mean I’m a criminal, or suspected of a crime, or that I hang out with the wrong people, or share a residence with someone who is involved in crime? Does it mean I am a victim of crime myself? I’d like to see reporters probe deeper: known to police how? Once they know, they can assess whether or not it’s appropriate to mention it.
Unchallenged claims of privacy constraints
Government and other official spokespeople frequently cite “privacy considerations” when declining to provide information. In many cases privacy constraints really do exist; sometimes, however, they are simply assumed or even, occasionally, used to obfuscate.
I believe that every time reporters are told information can’t be made available because of privacy concerns, they should request the specific legislative provision that ostensibly poses the barrier, and do their own reality check on whether or not it does. When a privacy constraint does exist, reporters should consider whether it’s necessary to explain its nature to readers.
This may be my No. 1 irritation, although fortunately you won’t see it in work created by this newsroom, because anonymous sources are not permitted here. I wasn’t always so bothered by this, but I now consider it irresponsible to allow an unnamed person to use the “power of the press” to attack someone else, with no accountability whatsoever.
Descriptions of women as grandmothers – and less frequently, of men as grandfathers – are often used when they are completely irrelevant. If a grandmother rescues her grandson from a raging river, it’s relevant. If a grandmother rescues a dog from a raging river, it’s not. Age may be, but grandparenthood is hardly an accurate signifier of age.
Telegraph-Journal editor Gregory Boyd points out that “mom” can be similarly abused as a ploy to grab attention in a headline.
Those who have grandchildren, or children, are no more special or worthy of our attention, empathy or disapprobation than those who don’t. As with any content, the test is always relevance, and these terms should be used only when a familial relationship is relevant to the story.
Speaking of grandparents
Campbellton Tribune editor Tim Jaques points out that “elderly” can be misused to describe people of a certain age. Who says you’re elderly at 68 rather than at 78 or 88?
He says "elder" is a term of respect, implying wisdom, experience and historical knowledge. On the other hand, he says, “elderly” suggests decay and decrepitude.
My own age either puts me in a conflict of interest or makes me perfectly suited to comment on this one. I agree with Mr. Jaques; describe me as elderly at your peril.
Failure to use spell-check
Speaks for itself.
Reporters and the people who edit their copy work hard; creating and publishing news content is a human endeavour undertaken in a fast-paced environment. Some mistakes are inevitable, spell-check is not a failsafe, deadline demands may close off some lines of inquiry, and there are legitimate differences of opinion on some of the matters I’ve discussed. They just happen to be my pet peeves.
This column was published originally by Brunswick News and reprinted here with Graham’s permission.