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The Embarrassment of Being Inaccurate

Posted on Saturday, October 31, 2015 at 1:36 PM

An object lesson for all of us.

By Peter Jacobi

I share with you a packet of email correspondence. The object lesson becomes obvious and is also important to be reminded of.

Robin Wright initiates the exchange of messages. Wright's professional life as a journalist, foreign policy observer, and thinker has been significant: fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; reporter from more than 140 countries on six continents; former diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post; writer with credits in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, and author of several books on aspects of international affairs.

She Writes:

"Dear Professor Jacobi:

"In the process of googling today, I came upon your reference to a magazine article I wrote in The New Yorker. The citation appeared in your book, The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It, Write It. My piece was about Iran in 1988, and it won the National Magazine Award.

"Throughout your discussion of my article, you described me as male. 'He did this ... He did that ... He described that' ... etc.

"This distressed me more than I would have anticipated.

"I have spent my life covering wars in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Europe. But I am very much female. And I am proud to have competed with the boys -- spanning four decades -- and out-performed them more than once.

"I would have been so grateful -- as I suspect other female correspondents would have been -- if you had not simply assumed that I was a man, or if you had done due diligence in your mention of my work.

"With regards, Robin Wright."

Let me just insert here a couple of facts before sharing my response. My magazine book was first published in 1991, and what I didn't know then, I certainly know now, and indeed knew long before her email message.

Here Is My Answer

"Dear Robin Wright,

"Oh, my goodness! What an awful thing to be made aware of 24 years after publication. What an awful thing to be made aware of anytime. I certainly know better as a journalist and teacher of journalism. I certainly know better about you. Since then, I've read you. I've seen and heard you countless times on television. I've come to admire you. You're everything I believe a good journalist should be, and then some.

"Yet, there it is: a really bad error in print about you, one I will not ever forgive myself for. It is certainly an object lesson, a reminder, that we can never be too careful about checking the facts. It is a grievous example of how hurtful we, as journalists, can be when we allow ourselves to get lax in the information-gathering phase of our work.

"What's worse is that I cannot make it right. I can only ask for your forgiveness, even while I cannot do that for myself. But may I use this situation as that above-mentioned object lesson? I write a monthly column for a newsletter called Editors Only. I'd like to give my readers a powerful, real life example of what can happen when we don't take that one-extra step in our efforts to offer our readers only the facts and only the truth. I always demanded that from my students at Northwestern and Indiana. I thought I always demanded it from myself. Well, maybe I demanded it, but on this occasion, I didn't practice it sufficiently well. As a result, instead of accomplishing what I meant to do, which was to honor you, I failed miserably.

"I'm sad about what happened but glad you wrote to tell me.

"All the best. Peter Jacobi"

Her Response

Robin Wright responded graciously:

"Professor Jacobi --

"Apology accepted.

"We all made mistakes. I once described a Democratic senator as a Republican -- although, in fairness, there are fewer physical differences between men and women (and sometimes not all that many political differences either).

"Feel free to do with it what you like. It's just always been a struggle because of ignorant assumptions about women's capabilities to cover wars -- or anything other than social issues. In 1970, I was initially barred from the Rose Bowl Press Box because they only allowed female 'food distributors and teletype operators' in the press box. When I went to Africa in the 1970s, there were 106 members of the foreign press corps -- and 105 of them were boys. When I covered the early years of John Paul II's papacy, I was often the only female correspondent (or female) on his plane. When I first went to Beirut, in the early 1980s, there were only two other female reporters, and both were stringers married to full-time correspondents.

"It's different today. But it's taken us all a long time -- usually working far harder than our male counterparts -- to get there.

"With regards, Robin"

My Follow-up

"Thank you. Thank you.

"And think about the doors of change that you've helped to open during your distinguished career, all while and because you practiced your craft at such a high level of excellence!! That's worth the two exclamation points.

"Peter"

Accuracy!!

Accuracy: how vital it is. Care: how vital it is. Need I say more? Well, only that I'm thankful that, up to now, no one else has written to tell me of another error in my book. One is more than enough.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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