Earlier this week, a television news station in Memphis erroneously reported that Rhodes College, a small liberal arts college in Midtown Memphis, is looking for new digs because it’s outgrowing its beautiful campus.
The Rhodes College public affairs office dryly noted in a statement posted on its website that “these reports are completely false.”
My first reaction was, “Thank goodness.” As you might know, Rhodes is my alma mater. And I love that campus. I know I’m biased, but it has got to be one of the most beautiful colleges in the entire country. The Gothic buildings with slate roofs, the row of massive old oak trees that form an arching canopy near the front of the campus, the lush green lawns…gorgeous. (And just a wee bit haunted, as all good colleges should be, I think.) I can’t imagine Rhodes not being at that very site, even though the original campus was actually located in Clarksville, many many years ago.
My second reaction was, “Wow, how’d they screw up so badly?” And by “they,” I mean the team that broadcast the false report. It’s one thing to mention that a school’s enrollment is growing and making the current campus a little more crowded. It’s another to jump about a mile to the conclusion that the college is looking to relocate. That’s a massive assumption.
As a fellow journalist, part of me wants to give the broadcast team a little benefit of the doubt. We’re human. As such, we’ve all made mistakes, even though most of us try as hard as we can to make as few of them as possible. You fact-check. You double-check the spelling of someone’s name. You call someone back when your notes look a little confusing and say, “When you said XYZ, did you really mean XYZ or did you say XYZ and also ABC?”
But then, if you read the report from Rhodes, it notes that no one contacted anyone at the college to verify that information. If that is the case, that’s a big old problem right there. That’s Journalism 101. You call your source and ask him to comment. If you can’t reach him, you either 1) wait to publish or 2) confirm elsewhere. Or in some circumstances, you might note that So-and-So declined to comment (but you usually tell the person that you will be mentioning that in your report). Publications and media outlets have different standards for anonymous sources, so it’s hard to generalize on that kind of situation, but most places are either not going to let you use an anonymous source or they’re going to make you verify the information with several other sources first. But you don’t just…not contact someone to verify a pretty major piece of information.
But I’m relieved to learn that at least my school’s staying put! After all, in a few years, I’m looking forward to dragging my recalcitrant children around campus to point out all the sites of happy memories while they groan and bury their faces in whatever electronic device is all the rage then. No one had better take that away from me.