Mea culpa means telling the truth

If you’ve ever seen the 1994 movie “The Paper,” which purported to portray life at a New York tabloid newspaper over the course of 24 hours, the impression you likely got about day-to-day life in a newsroom was not far from reality.

That film starred Michael Keaton as a mid-level editor juggling looming deadlines, demanding bosses and challenging competition with the overriding need for accuracy, (plus the fact that he had a home life somewhere in that tangle). That film may have been a little over the top, but it wasn’t by much.

Even at a weekly newspaper in a small town, gathering the news can be a bit crazy and sometimes things don’t work out very smoothly. Once in a while, a story turns out to be a dud. That happened to us last week in covering a local story that turned out to be not what we thought it was. The problem was, we learned that after it was already in print.

It happens. On rare occasions, at every paper, a story goes sour. You find out things weren’t the way you understood them to be, sometimes because someone sold you a bill of goods. When we report news, we ask questions when something doesn’t seem to add up because we want what we write to be accurate as possible. You’re not buying this paper to read unsubstantiated information.

Most news coverage is way more seat-of-the-pants than we journalists would like it to be. In an ideal world, we could call 50 sources to flesh out a story to the -nth degree and everybody would call us back promptly, eager to talk all about whatever it is we need to know. Then we could write a terrific story that’s a delight to read.

The reality is that we’ve often got multiple stories going at the same time, on widely different topics and with calls out to different sources for each story. People don’t always call us back. Late-breaking stories come in at the last minute. With an uncompromising deadline looming, we have to do the best we can to get an accurate, complete report on the page.

This particular story was rather late-breaking, the performance of the Husky competition cheer squad in a competition in Los Angeles on March 31.

The Huskies “qualified” for this JAMfest “national competition” after winning the 4A state competition put on by the Oregon School Activities Association.

I’ve had previous experience with cheer competitions from working as a newspaper editor in California. Cheer competitions are a dime a dozen. (I just did a quick Web search to find approximately 50 organizations that put on such competitions – as well as camps – and that was just a cursory search.)

Cheer is a big deal for some young ladies and I’ve often had proud parents informing me that their (often preschool-aged) daughter’s team won such-and-such and have now qualified for the Great American Whatever. Since a lot of these contests are simply money-makers for promoters who play on the ambitions of parents, it’s wise to take them with a grain of salt as far as their actual significance from a news standpoint.

In the case of the JAMfest, it turned out to be more of a promotion and less of a competition for the Huskies, to their chagrin. They got down to Los Angeles and discovered that there really were no other teams in their division. From what we’ve learned more recently, it was a rather devastating blow to the team, which had done some high-intensity fund-raising and had the help of a lot of local people to get there.

Sure, they outscored other teams that they could have competed against, if the organizers had allowed them to. But it wasn’t what they expected – or what we understood.

Our problem was all this was not clearly communicated to us on a busy Monday afternoon when we were already juggling other stories and putting together your newspaper for the week. We checked the JAMfest Web site when we heard the Huskies had won to try to get a list of all the teams they had competed against – supposedly 15 of them. The site didn’t list the winners at that point, so that proved to be a dead end. Too bad, because it would have made a difference in our story.

Our reporter, Sean Morgan, talked to Coach Crystal Kimball, who has done a terrific job with this team, and to some of the team members. They told us that the competition “wasn’t really what we expected,” but our understanding was that they had competed against 15 teams, which is a reasonably decent field in cheer competitions. They won, it was a national-level competition, and our story went on Page One.

Except it wasn’t what we thought and we overplayed the story as a consquence.

Why, you ask, are we making such a big deal of this? Because our job is to present even-handed news coverage that accurately portrays what’s happening within your community. We didn’t do that this time, and we want you to know that and to understand why.

Having said this, we don’t want to discount the achievements of this cheer squad. I suspect if they’d gone head-to-head with champion teams from 10 or 20 other states, they would have fared very well – maybe even won. Their score at the OSAA state championships was good enough that they would have placed third in the state against ALL teams in Oregon, not just 4A. They’re a very good team and they deserved a trip to SoCal to show off their stuff on the big stage.

It’s just too bad that the stage they wound up on wasn’t it.