A Victim’s Tale

What it's like to be on the receiving end of a press error

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:

Resident shoots

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.

I’m curious about how an error personally affects people. So for you, after having experienced something fairly traumatic in the first place, how did this mistake impact your state of mind and feeling?

Honestly, the unintended humor of the entire situation was a break from dealing with what had just happened. All the same, spending a good portion of my day trying to get in touch with the right folks at the paper was frustrating.

Did it impact your view of the paper?

I’d been reading this paper since I was a kid, the family subscription was even in my name for a while. A few years back, I interviewed for a position in the paper’s morgue. It gave me a great chance to meet the librarian and the managing editor there, both of whom where entirely helpful in addressing any questions I had. I’ve still got some faith in the paper, less than before, perhaps. But I wouldn’t trust that reporter to give correct movie times.

What bothered you most about the mistake?

How casual it seemed, the lack of follow-through, the laziness in checking sources. Anyone reading that bit who didn’t know the full story would take it as fact without thinking twice. I would expect a reporter to look at the story and perhaps have some curiosity about the “shooter” being charged with anything. My alleged actions certainly weren’t legal. For something like that in a busy newsroom, I honestly didn’t expect a call. But a second glance through the police report (or a good first one) would have saved us all some time. Like you said, the gun-toting description was what really put me over the edge.

Were you the person who reported the error to the paper? If so, what can you tell me about that process? Did you e-mail? Call? What was their reaction?

I called the reporter’s phone line, the call went to voicemail so I transferred over to the local desk. The gentleman there took my information, made a comment on “maybe we should talk to you about that…” when I mentioned both of the incidents, and then transferred me back to the reporter’s voice mail to leave a message. For any [journalists] you’re sharing this with “I check my messages… sometimes” is not something you want to have in your voicemail greeting.

A few hours later I got fed up with the situation and just called the managing editor, who, to his credit, answered his own phone on the second ring. After explaining the problem and having him read the section, his response was that the briefs were pulled from the police reports and the error was probably in that. That didn’t fly with me; I had the incident report number in hand and told him to look it up. The reporter later called me to say he was sorry and that the correction would be on A2 of the next day’s paper.

So then the correction appeared in the paper. Did that in your view repair things? Do you feel satisfied?

I’m glad it was there, I mean, I would have been cool with a bit more groveling on their part, but at least things were corrected. The reporter erred, it would have been nice to know that there was regret there as well. I’m not going to lie, part of the reason I sent this along to you was to encourage a bit of that regret.

Do you have any thoughts on how things could have been handled better?

Does “the reporter could have gotten it right” count? Mistakes happen, I know that I failed a few assignments in J-school for [major factual errors]. And I understand the editor’s need to protect his reporters. But attempting to immediately pass the buck on the mistake was a bit gauche. Even more so when you considered that I met the man, and I reminded him who I was when I called. If he thought that a guy with degrees in journalism and library science wouldn’t do the research, well, I don’t know what that says about a person. I suppose picking up the phone to hear, “Hi, your paper just accused me of attempted homicide” might throw a guy off. I haven’t checked the online story yet, but at the time the correction was printed, the brief had not been corrected, nor had an updated correction page been posted to the website. [Note: As of this writing, the brief remains uncorrected.]

One thing that stood out to me in your e-mail was the subject line: “Not really noteworthy, but at least the newspaper isn’t charging me with attempted homicide anymore.” Obviously there’s a bit of dark humor there. But it also suggests that you feel as though what happened to you with the error isn’t really something you expect people to notice or care about. Almost as if there’s a sense of futility about the whole thing. Is that true or am I off on that?

I like gallows humor, it works for me. Compared to everything else that happened, this was just icing on the cake. My name wasn’t included in the brief, so they got to dodge their own bullet there. I try to make it a point not to assume malice when ignorance is an option. The main point of the subject line was that I know the blog tends to cover bad reporting of regional or national issues. But crime reports tend to be like obits, a few people read them very, very closely.

So, seriously, do you live in a really bad neighborhood or was this as crazy as it sounds?

We moved the day after the burglary and shooting. We were in a bad neck of the woods and the place had already been burglarized once since we’d moved in. So yeah, a bad neighborhood, but that doesn’t stop it from being just as crazy as it sounds.

Correction of the Week

An obituary of Professor John Hospers stated that he was the first openly gay candidate for US president. However wide the currency of that belief, his family has asked us to make clear that it strenuously denies that he was gay (14 July, page 35). — The Guardian

Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star. Tags: , , , ,