Thursday, 19 April 2007

Never ass-u-me

In 1960, while working as a copy boy for the Globe and Mail, veteran news editor Al Dawson handed me a brief note. The note, the aftermath of an error on my part, read:

"Never assume. It makes an "ass" out of "u" and "me."

Never forgot that timeless advice, as a copy boy and during my subsequent 30 years in newsrooms, including 19 at the Toronto Sun.

Assumptions in the media can be hurtful, damaging and life-changing. Ask members of the Duke lacrosse team falsely accused of rape. Ask Richard Jewell, the security guard falsely accused in the Atlanta Olympics bombing. And who came to mind immediately after the Oklahoma City bombing? Imported terrorists. Not.

Too many print and broadcast journalists take to heart two media joke lines: "Never let the facts stand in the way of a good story"and "Get it first, then get it right."

Which brings us to Thane Burnett, who should be applauded for his Page 4 Toronto Sun story about the media's assumption that Virginia Tech student Emily Hilsher and gunman Cho Seung-Hui were linked romantically.

Thane owns up to being a participant in that huge media assumption and apologizes. He writes:

"In most early stories - including my own for Sun Media - Emily was offhandedly referred to as a possible girlfriend to Cho. Or that they, at least, had a relationship.

"Sickening enough that a madman killed her. Now add the slur she was involved with him romantically," Thane writes.

"While the probable lack of any relationship has been amended and clarified deep inside news copy which has flowed out of here, I feel guilt that I had any part in drawing her into an embrace with a killer."

Thane, the pro that he is, offers a refreshing, upfront apology for following the media frenzy for a story and getting it wrong.

Do headline-hungry media learn from their mistakes? Obviously not, but a good start would be to take to heart Al Dawson's advice to not make an "ass" out of "u" and "me."

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