On Tuesday evening, I had the chance to speak to a class at Glendale Community College run by the school's police chief, Gary Montecuollo. I have spoken to this class before, which focuses on law enforcement's interactions with the larger community, and enjoyed it each time.
Why? Partly because I get to talk about journalism at length to a captive audience. However, it's also a chance to seek what issues students are interested in and concerned about.
Interestingly, much of the discussion revolved around online comments, both on the newspaper's websites and elsewhere. Several noted — quite correctly — that people are far more cruel, bigoted, racist and just plain ignorant online than they ever would be in person. They wondered why that might be.
Anonymity, I answered. If you don't have to be held to account for what you say, you are free to say pretty much anything.
"There's a fairly politically incorrect term for such behavior," I said. "It's called cowardice."
It would be easier on my psyche — and my blood pressure — if I simply ignored such vile spew, I told the class. Let people fight among themselves, if you will. But that's not responsible. I need to read and delete, as necessary, these comments.
In addition, people often use online comments to point out, and mock, the paper for making errors. Despite my personal feelings about politeness, if we've made an error, we've made an error, and it should be corrected.
Here are a couple of recent examples. First, in a story about the Doo-Dah Parade last week, we referred to the late Jiryar "Jerry" Zorthian, one of the zany parade's shining lights, as a "native of Turkey." Zorthian, who survived the Armenian Genocide, was born in 1911, a number of years before the modern state of Turkey came into existence.
This was a boneheaded move, no doubt. Given the emotions that surround April 24 — a date that commemorates the Armenian Genocide — we should have been more sensitive. Fortunately, I believe our reputation within the larger community is strong, and the error — which has been corrected — will cause no lasting problems.
This error was pointed out to us privately, but our reputation may have been damaged if we did not correct it quickly.
The second error, which occurred in the Burbank Leader, was pointed out to us in a more public way. In that paper, we ran a story about an third-grade teacher at McKinley Elementary who allegedly helped a student on a standardized test.
In this instance, we used a file photo of a classroom, though not the class of the teacher under investigation. This was wrong, and we needed to rectify the situation by removing the irrelevant image.
Unfortunately, I replied to the online comments pointing this out with an unwise amount of snark, which failed to help things, especially when the paper was in the wrong.
In both cases, however, transparency was the key. I strive for perfection in everything we do here. I am frustrated when we fall short, and embarrassed that we have to acknowledge our mistakes so publicly. However, not doing so hurts our reputation far more than any mistake we could ever make.
As a parting statement, I asked the class to be as transparent in their actions, to acknowledge their mistakes, and to learn from them.
"After all," I said. "If journalists make a mistake, we may ruin someone's day. If you make a mistake, you make ruin someone's life."
DAN EVANS is the editor. When he's not answering irate emails, he can be reached at (818) 637-3234 or firstname.lastname@example.org