It won’t quite be on the level of the debates prompted by the likes of such disputed documents as The Gospel of Thomas, but at some point in the future historians are going to be trying to answer the question of the Bishop of Warrington.
What was he doing in the sleepy port town of Falmouth, Cornwall, one day in 1978, they will wonder, when his pastoral duties centered on the English industrial town some two hundred and fifty hundred miles to the north? Conspiracy theorists may have fun pouring over the report in the coastal weekly newspaper, The Falmouth Packet, that recorded his local appearance.
So let me go on record now. The bishop was not in Falmouth that day, despite an account to the contrary. A young reporter, I had recently moved to Falmouth from Warrington, and when it came to type a list of dignitaries at some civic event or other, my brain went into neutral and my fingers found the name they were most familiar with having typed repeatedly in previous months. Sorry, Bishop…
If I deserve having my knuckles rapped for being half asleep, one might also ponder a suitable reprimand for the dozy copy editor, proof reader, and editor. I had rounded up the gaffe, but they had branded it, slapped it on the behind, and let it ride out of the corral. Negligence can be a team sport.
Sadly, this hasn’t been the only mistake I have made in more than three decades of journalism. One misplaced decimal point saw someone shunned by friends, after the petty cash theft he was alleged to have perpetrated ballooned into the sizable sum I inaccurately reported.
All of which might seem to call into question my passionate belief in the importance of journalism as a calling to be honored and valued. How can we believe anything we read or hear if there are people out there making such dumb mistakes?
Carelessness aside, the fragility of facts also involves the pressure of deadlines, disputed issues, and different versions of the same event. These challenges were all too evident in the wildly varying coverage of the Boston bombings. But most of us don’t stop going to the doctor because of the occasional sloppy surgeon who leaves a swab inside the last patient he stitched up. We do, however, exercise caution in who we consult with, and we ask for a second opinion.
The same should go for news. Cross-referencing reports from several sources is a check not only against simple knuckleheadedness, but also against unconscious or deliberate bias. It’s also a biblical principle, of course: Moses decreed that serious matters could only be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.
As a practitioner, I do my best to avoid silly errors, though they creep in from time to time. I’m grateful for sharp-eyed editors. I read, re-read, and re-re-read before submitting or posting. And I also pray for God’s help. Jesus told us that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth, so I pray that He does that as I marshal my facts. And that as a result He, rather than the devil, may be in the details.
I think the bishop would say Amen to that. Wherever he is.