Close Call

A school board member with a long history of holding student athletes to high standards almost got wrongfully smeared in the paper today. So did his son. The close call was a good lesson on just how much you have to look into things before you put them into print.

Every day I get a copy of the police dispatch logs from the days before, which including information about what police and firefighters had to deal with over the last 24 hours. Among the call log are also the arrests, and in one from last week was the 17-year-old son of a school board member.

The son had been arrested for driving after his license was either suspended or revoked. He got handcuffed, put in the back of the police car, formally arrested and bailed. The parent is the school board member who has long said student athletes who misbehave off campus must be held accountable on campus. That had us asking all sorts of questions, since the son kept playing basketball after the arrest.

We were all set to point out the hypocrisy of the school board member’s position, since no one reported the son’s arrest. It was getting close to a banner story.

Then I called the cops, who told me the whole thing was an administrative error. The Department of Motor Vehicles incorrectly had the son’s license as suspended. The arrest will appear on his arrest record now, the police said, but it was not his fault.

I immediately took the boy’s name out of the police log and called all the people we’d contacted who were connected with the story to make sure they had the full information, but it was that close to a story. The official police records said there was an arrest, and there was no backstory on how it was essentially an erroneous arrest. Think about how that would have looked in tomorrow’s paper.

That was the second story dealing with that same school official where everything pointed in one direction but some key phone call or piece of information tipped the scales in the opposite direction. Both would have been monumental errors on the paper’s part, made someone look bad and in no way left any recourse for those hurt.

These are the dangers of three-quarters journalism. The evidence may point in one direction, but that may be only 90 percent of the evidence. The other 10 percent may make it clear that what the other 90 percent points two is inconsequential. It isn’t about what the evidence points to, it’s about the truth, and for that three-quarters (or even 90 percent) isn’t good enough.

Close calls are a reminder of why solid reporting is so important. Banner stories die because you do your job well. Sometimes it feels great to kill them.

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