Last week was a terrible one for Jon Harris, a librarian at the North Canton Public Library in Ohio. On Thursday he was smoking a cigarette on his front porch when a man walked up, pulled a gun, and demanded Harris hand over his money and laptop.
On Saturday he and his girlfriend arrived home to find all of the lights on. Soon, a man ran out the front door holding several of their belongings.
Harris chased the robber down a side street. The thief turned around, pulled a gun and fired a shot at Harris, who ducked and sought cover.
Yeah, awful week.
Then things got a bit worse thanks to a news brief about the Saturday incident published in the Akron Beacon Journal. A serious error in that article led Harris to spend time tracking down someone at the paper to speak to, and ultimately resulted in a Wednesday correction, which Harris e-mailed to me for publication on my blog. The subject line of his e-mail was, “Not really noteworthy, but at least the newspaper isn’t charging me with attempted homicide anymore.” (Harris works as a librarian now, but he also studied journalism as an undergrad.)
It’s not often I’m put in touch with a victim of press error, so I followed up and conducted an e-mail Q&A with Harris to hear one man’s tale of error, and how a press mistake made a terrible few days even worse.
So you were the victim of a pretty awful crime recently. Can you tell me what happened?
Actually there were two crimes, an aggravated robbery on Thursday, and then an aggravated burglary on Saturday; the Saturday incident is what the paper had covered. On Thursday, a man with a gun came up to me while I was smoking a cigarette on the front porch and demanded my money and laptop. I complied with those requests, we got into a pushing match with the door between us when he attempted to follow me inside. The man then ran off after I yelled for my girlfriend to lock the bedroom door and call the police. Three days later we came home to find lights on in our apartment, after walking around to the front door (my key didn’t work in the back) and knocking on windows, a man ran out the front door with my netbook and laptop bag, my girlfriend’s laptop and her phone. I chased the guy because, well, I was more than a bit pissed off. We cut through a neighbors parking area and ended up on a side street. The burglar then stopped and turned toward me probably 15-20 yards away and fired a shot. Luckily he missed and I stumbled around to find cover as he ran off.
Here’s the resulting brief about the crime that was published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Wednesday:
AKRON: A burglar was scared off by a gun-toting resident who returned to the East Buchtel Avenue apartment Saturday night.
The burglar stole a cell phone, two laptop computers, a shoulder bag and checkbook before running off. One of the residents gave chase and fired a shot along Wise Street, but apparently did not strike the burglar, police said.
Police say the burglar was a black male, 18 to 26 years old. He had a goatee and short black hair cut in a fade. He wore dark clothing.
Obviously, there is a big error in the piece in that it said you shot at the burglar, rather than the other way around. Were you contacted by the paper prior to publication?
There was no contact from the newspaper, they tend to pull those briefs directly from the police reports. I wouldn’t call it a masterwork of journalistic integrity, but I understand it’s a common practice. If only he’d been content with Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V.
How did you discover the article?
My mother called me in the morning as I was getting into work. She started the conversation with, “So I hear you shot at a guy!” The library where I work stocks that paper, so I got to walk in and find the article a few minutes later.
What was your reaction upon reading it?
At first, amusement. It really took a minute or two until I realized the gravity of the situation. I work with teenagers, and seeing something in the paper, even without my name attached, accusing me of shooting at a man is a bit of a problem.
I’d have to think the phrase “gun-toting resident” struck a nerve.
It really did, because to me, it showed an utter disregard for the facts. It’s bad enough to get some details (especially major ones) wrong. But knowing that the journalist then embellished incorrect details? That’s just sloppy.