This week was fair week, which is one of our biggest coverage weeks of the year, minus general elections and the Pendleton Round-Up, which is so important in our neck of the woods that the other day someone asked a colleague how long he had worked for the paper and he answered "three Round-Ups."
There are good things and bad things about being a reporter during fair week. On the plus side, I got to wear jeans to work all week. On the downside, it was 102 degrees in the afternoons.
Like most weeks on the job, it also means I end up writing authoritatively about things that I really don't know much about. Having spent nine years of my life in Iowa and most of the rest in Eastern Oregon I am farther ahead than one of our sports reporters, who is facing the daunting task of reporting the rodeo all week while having never actually been to a rodeo before. But that doesn't mean that it's easy coming up with intelligent-sounding follow-up questions for professional rodeo stock contractors (or even seven-year-old rabbit owners) on the fly.
Being a reporter is actually kind of crazy if you think about it. Imagine you're in college and you get to your English class and the professor says "I'm giving you an assignment to write a three-page paper explaining the optimum conditions for growing asparagus and comparing the quality of this year's asparagus crop in Europe to the one in the United States. You have three hours, after which I will post your paper online and start handing out copies around campus with your name at the top so that everyone can critique your writing skills." Now repeat that every day with a new topic.
It's a lot easier to get away with faking knowledge on a topic when you're in school. When I was in AP Biology someone told me that for the essay portion the test scorers just look for specific words and phrases to check off rather than actually fact-checking your essay. Which explains why I got a 4 on my AP Bio test despite the fact that one of my three essays literally went something like this: "Plasmid DNA is involved in the process. Endonuclease is also important. And don't forget about vectors."
Unfortunately you can't write a news article this way.
Instead you have to research. And not be afraid to ask dumb questions. Sometimes it's embarrassing to admit to someone you have no idea what that word they keep using actually means. But in the long run it's a lot better to look like an idiot to one source than to 10,000 readers. And you can always preface the question with, "For my readers who don't know what that means ..."
The good news is the longer you're a reporter, the closer you come to knowing everything. Eventually you do, indeed, become knowledgeable on certain topics, like the city's general fund or the difference between Common Core and Smarter Balanced.
Of course, no matter how smart you are and how hard you try, in this line of work you will inevitably end up looking like an idiot sooner or later. You just can't publish thousands of words every day on a deadline without something going wrong eventually. Already in my career I've made mistakes ranging from misspelling heroin all the way through an article about drugs to giving someone a completely different last name halfway through an article.
Someday I'm sure I'll make the kind of mistake that becomes legendary in a community. Here it was the infamous "Amphibious pitcher" versus "Ambidextrous pitcher" headline mix-up. When I was at the Daily Universe someone labeled a front-page photo of the LDS church's leadership with the caption "Quorum of the 12 Apostates" instead of "Quorum of the 12 Apostles" after she stopped paying attention to what the spell check was actually correcting words to. And not long before I joined the staff of the Chronicle, someone accidentally undid the shrinking of a photo to fit inside the box, resulting in a front page article accompanied by a picture of just the city's planner's eyebrow labeled with his name.
Most mistakes are much more run-of-the-mill, however. Like one of my mentors used to say, even the best goalies sometimes let in the ball. If we got information wrong, let us know, but don't be snarky about what was clearly just an accidental typo. When people comment on our Facebook page pointing out a typo and ask, "Doesn't anyone there know how to spell?" the only result is that I have to resist the very strong urge to reply "Thank you so much for setting us straight! Despite all of our college degrees and years of professional writing experience, we just couldn't agree on whether "they" has an e in it or not. Glad you cleared that up for us."
I would rather spend my energy learning about asparagus in case I ever have to write about it.