In journalism, accuracy is everything

January 10, 1999|By Dave Barry | Dave Barry,Knight Ridder/Tribune

The time has come for us, as a nation, to resolve this wrenching issue, so that we can move on. This issue has been with us for far too long, weighing on our minds, sitting heavy on our hearts, bloating the intestines of our national consciousness with the twin gases of partisanship and hate.

I am referring, as you have no doubt gathered, to the bitter controversy concerning the location of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This controversy got started when I wrote a column in which I stated that the Leaning Tower of Pisa is located in Paris, France. I received letters from readers stating that the Leaning Tower of Pisa is in fact located in an Italian city called "Pisa."

Now, I happen to be known in journalism circles as a big stickler for accuracy. I have a stickle the size of a fire hydrant. So when I got these critical letters, I felt that I had no choice but to swallow my pride and send these readers individual notes informing them that they were mistaken, because the Leaning Tower of Pisa had been moved to Paris in 1994. At that point, I assumed that the matter was settled. But then I got another letter from one of my original critics, Mrs. Herbert H. Harder of Benton, Kan. Mrs. Harder's letter stated:

"I still don't believe the real original Leaning Tower of Pisa was or ever will be moved to Paris. First of all, I think Pisa, Italy, would never, never allow such a thing to happen. ... To move the Pisa, Italy, real Tower of Pisa would require a cost that would be prohibitive."

To clinch her argument, Mrs. Harder cited the ultimate authority:

"I stopped at a Travel Agency and asked if they had heard anything about the Leaning Tower of Pisa having been moved. Of course they hadn't."

When you have been in journalism as long as I have (6,000 years), you get used to members of the public making all kinds of wacky claims, such as that the CIA has placed radio receivers in their teeth, or aliens have invaded Earth, or the Leaning Tower of Pisa is located in Italy. So I was frankly inclined to simply ignore Mrs. Harder's letter. But then I got to thinking about a recent public survey about journalism credibility, conducted by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (motto: "Proudly Maintaining the [Motto Continued on Page A-34]"). The ASNE did the survey to find out why the public does not trust us in the news media. The survey showed that you, the public, think that we:

1. Is guilty of many grammar and spelling errores.

2. Rely on what one highly placed ASNE executive described as "too many unnamed sources."

3. Use any excuse to print sensationalistic trash, such as the rumor that reportedly might be printed in a coming issue of Hustler magazine concerning an allegation that Kenneth Starr got at least 60 percent of the current Spice Girls pregnant.

4. Allow our news judgment to be affected by big advertisers such as General Motors, whose cars are not only fun and reliable, but also prevent cancer.

7. Are generally careless and sloppy.

The survey also showed that the public thinks these problems have worsened in recent years. I can explain this. In the old days, newspaper stories were checked by editors before being printed; today, editors are busy doing surveys on declining journalism credibility, so they have no time to look at the actual newspaper. (For example, if the phrase "stickle the size of a fire hydrant" appeared in this column, no editor has read it.)

The point is that we have big problems in the news business. But we also have a proud tradition of righting wrongs, expressed in the old saying: "When you make a mistake, have the courage to print a correction that is too small to locate without an electron microscope."

And that is why, when I received the letter from Mrs. Herbert H. Harder of Benton, Kan., claiming that the Leaning Tower of Pisa is located in Italy, rather than simply tearing it into tiny pieces and feeding them to a hamster, I said to myself, "What if maybe -- just maybe -- Mrs. Herbert H. Harder of Benton, Kan., is correct?" And so, after some "nosing around," I uncovered the following information:

* The Leaning Tower of Pisa is, in fact, located in Italy. However, under the Treaty of Ghent, which was signed by Charles "D" Gaulle and Henry VI, Italy is, legally, part of Paris, France.

* The "Leaning" Tower of Pisa is in fact perfectly vertical. All the other buildings in Pisa are leaning, and the residents walk around on special shoes with one heel higher than

another.

* According to a highly placed source, both Charles "D" Gaulle and Henry VI got Spice Girls pregnant.

I hope this clears everything up. If you have any questions about this, or any other article in today's newspaper, please do not hesitate to check with your travel agent. Or, if you prefer, you can contact us here at the newspaper directly, via the receivers in our teeth.

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