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ROTHENBURGER — Don’t believe everything you read

COLUMN — Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers. That’s a lesson every one of us has been taught since we were old enough to read.

Melcolhed2These days, of course, the warning would more appropriately add “or on radio or TV, or online.”

I learned this week never to take this simple fact of life for granted.

I was doing a bit of research for a presentation I called Swimming With the Media, a bit of a primer about who the media are, what they do and why they do it. Ours is not an industry that’s always easy to understand, so I try to be candid but respectful about it — after all, it provided me with a good living.

Anyway, I came across a clipping about an incident in which a woman found a hat in a tree. The hat was retrieved and the owner was being sought.

I’d seen the story before and it always interested me as an example of how a slow news day can result in stories that might not be big news but are interesting and sometimes amusing in their mundaneness. What’s not news in one place is news in another, etc.

I also decided I’d use the story to illustrate the basics of news writing — how reporters insert the fundamentals into a story first. Who, what, when, where and why are still basic to news reporting, though what we call the “inverted pyramid” style of writing isn’t as much in vogue as it once was.

The story was headlined, ‘Woman finds a hat in a tree.’

This is what it said:

A hat has been found up a tree in Bilton.

The woolen head garment, which is red and has a bobble, was discovered on Tuesday by Bilton Lane resident Sharon Bromance, 43.

“I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw it up there,” she said. “I got it down with a stick and put it on a fence post.”

The owner now has until April 10 to reclaim the hat, after which it will be destroyed.

So into the slide presentation it went, and I don’t mind saying I felt pretty clever to find this fine example of the point I was trying to make. Applying the five Ws, I found the “why” wasn’t covered very well in the story — why was the hat in the tree, and why was it going to be destroyed?

A couple of nights before the presentation, after submitting my slides to the organizers, I was going over my copy and making some notes, when I got curious about Bilton. Where is this place, and what kind of a newspaper does it have? Maybe there are some other good examples in its pages.

hat-copyThere are several Biltons in this world, as it happens, a couple of which I found in the U.K. One is in Warwickshire, another in Yorkshire. The latter seemed more likely, with a population of a couple of thousand, two convenience stores and — a fact I found out after I did some further searching among papers in the region — a paper called the Advertiser.

Scanning its website content, I did, indeed, come across a reference to the hat story, but it wasn’t what I expected. It was an April Fool’s joke. I’d been totally taken in, which is hard to admit because I’ve authored quite a few April Fool’s stories myself.

The hat story was published in 2011 and went viral on Twitter. One tweet suggested people stop worrying about the war in Libya and worry about the hat. A Facebook page was started up to save the Bilton hat.

I decided to change my rationale for using the story in my presentation to illustrate that we need to do our own research on what we’re told instead of accepting it as accurate. The media are guilty of not checking their facts, too, the race to be first out with a story taking precedence over accuracy.

And I, who have often been critical of the mainstream media on that point, was as guilty as any of them by not being skeptical of the hat story. I did fess up to my audience, however.

This prompted me look at the other examples I used in my talk, including this news brief:

WALMART : Police receive a report of a newborn infant found in a trash can. Upon investigation, officers discover it was only a burrito.

I got as far as finding out it was published in Mountain View in California, and found that it, too, had caused a bit of a stir online, mostly outrage over the very idea that someone would throw away a good burrito, though some wanted to know if Wal-Mart burritos were any good.

 

BeppletweetBoth these stories are re-discovered every once in awhile and come to life again, and the images of the clippings are tweeted and Facebooked with questioning comments. By and large, though, they’re accepted as factual. As for me, I’m now reserving judgment on the burrito story.

One would think, with the likes of Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly and Mike Duffy being in the news, we’d be very careful about trusting what media tell us. In my case, maybe it’s just that I’m too trusting of my own industry.

All I know is, after the Bilton hat trick, I’m going to be more careful about what I believe when I read or see something in the media from now on.

Mel Rothenburger can be contacted at armchairmayor@gmail.com (especially if you know anything about the burrito story). He tweets @melrothenburger and is on facebook.com/mrothenburger.7.

About Mel Rothenburger (8574 Articles)
ArmchairMayor.ca is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At ArmchairMayor.ca he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

1 Comment on ROTHENBURGER — Don’t believe everything you read

  1. lee kenney // March 7, 2015 at 8:03 AM // Reply

    “A Day in the Life ” skill is the ability to read between the lines, blatherskite awareness is a apprenticeship ! Thanks for the word up !

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