Thursday, May 13, 2010

Fact Errors Happen to Even the Best Writers

Through my stint at the University of Florida thus far, there has been one class that has stood out among the rest, and not necessarily for the best reasons. That class -- within the school of journalism -- was reporting. It was a nightmarish class that was meant to weed out the students who didn't really have a future in journalism, or public relations, or whatever other major required the class as a core course.

Week-in and week-out, students struggle with the class because of its strict grading policy on assigned articles. Five points off for every spelling and grammatical error -- and probably more if you made multiple ones, I don't completely recall, to be honest.

But there is one grading policy I will always remember. And I'm sure every student who took that class, whether it was one time or multiple times, remembers that policy: 50 points off for a factual error.

Everyone dreaded making fact errors, whether they were simple misspellings of a proper noun, or a number off on a phone number or address, and of course, the far more serious ones. Regardless, it was all the same in the end, a fact error meant a failing grade.

It was done to ingrain into the students' minds just how important getting the facts right was in journalism. And it is important, a lesson that all reporters and writers should know. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't still happen to the best of us.

And that is exactly what happened with Dan LeBatard, someone whose work I grew up reading in Miami, in his latest column for the Miami Herald.

In it, he discusses LeBron James' poor performance in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Celtics and the scrutiny LeBron has faced in the day or so since that game.

LeBatard opens with this lede:

"A very important player in a very important basketball game once went 3 for 18. He took eight three-pointers and missed every one of them. His team lost by 35 points. History does not remember him as a choker or afraid or not quite ready for the throne, even though he had this game on the largest stage -- in the NBA Finals. No, history remembers him as Michael Jordan."

Except the thing is, LeBatard later admitted via his radio show's Twitter account, those MJ game stats were wrong. He was duped by a false Wikipedia entry.

A fact error! So does this mean LeBatard's column, as a whole, should fail like it would in that reporting class? No. I mean, it would fail, by the class standards. But in reality, the message LeBatard is trying to get across in his column shouldn't be lost in the misled lead.

Sure, there is a lesson to be learned here -- for one, it's probably not best to depend on Wikipedia entries without verifying with a second source, but we've all been guilty of using Wikipedia in the same manner. I know I have.

On the other hand, there's also something to be said of the Herald's copy desk for letting such an egregious error -- in the first paragraph, no less -- go unchecked. I understand he's arguably your best sports writer, and you assume he knows what he's saying all the time, but the facts still need to be checked.

Regardless, it's a mistake and it got into the paper.

Still, LeBatard's overall message in the column is on point, and despite the error, that message is what you should take away after reading his piece -- LeBron had a bad game on a big stage, and many will speculate it's because he lacks any of a number of "winning qualities."

At the end of the day, though, no one really knows why he had such a poor performance. LeBron simply had a bad game, and there doesn't have to be a reason behind it. It just happened. And it does happen, even to the best of them, just ask Dan LeBatard.

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