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Real trick is juggling words and assumptions

Last week, I made one of the more spectacular errors of my career, partly because the mistake was not just in a story, but at the very top of the story —and it was deliberately provocative so people would be amused as they read on and learned the situation was not as bad as I’d tricked them into expecting.

In a story about the Gaston High School baseball team’s “Fear Factor” fundraiser, I led off with this:

“Don’t tell the child-abuse authorities, but Connor Matrisciano’s dad hooked shock collars to his son’s arms Saturday night and shocked him. Repeatedly.

While Connor juggled. With a goldfish hanging out of his mouth.”

The juggling and the fish were true. The shocking was not. The only shock occurred when Connor’s dad, who happens to be a Hillsboro Police detective, discovered this in Wednesday’s paper.

How did this error occur? Here’s a rough reconstruction of the miscommunication masterpiece.

When I called Coach Sean Casey before the event for a preview of the upcoming stunts, he mentioned a boy whose dad was going to strap shock collars to his arms and shock him while he juggled.

Wow. That caught my attention. I asked more questions: What kind of collars? (Shock collars, like for dogs.) Would the shocks be full strength? (No.) Had the kid practiced this at home? Etc.

Connor’s dad, Rich Matrisciano, says the idea was never more than a joke. Nonetheless, Coach Casey didn't seem to think so and in a night filled with bug- and worm-eating and rolling across mousetraps, it would have fit right in.

I couldn’t make it to the event, but when I called Casey for an update afterwards, I inquired about some of the stunts.

“How was the kid who juggled while his dad shocked him?” I asked, to which Casey responded with something to the effect of: “He had to do something else. He had to hold a fish in his mouth.”

Wow, I thought. Juggling. Getting shocked. And a fish in his mouth, too? If only he’d had a unicycle.

It’s clear now that Coach Casey meant “something else” instead of the shocks, while I thought he meant “something else” in addition to the shocks.

Tuesday morning, I realized I’d forgotten to get all the kids’ names. I called the school secretary, who handed the phone to a boy who had attended the event. “How about the kid who juggled while his dad shocked him?” I asked. “That was Connor Matrisciano,” he answered.

Perhaps the hall noise was too loud and he didn’t hear me say “while his dad shocked him.” Perhaps he didn’t know what I was talking about and just ignored it.

I’d like to say right here that I’m a natural doublechecker. And as a journalist, I’m a professional doublechecker. We start with times, dates and name-spellings. Or should. Many a young journalistic toe has been stubbed on “no-brainers” such as Pat, Jane and Mary — who turn out to be Patt, Jayne and Merrie.

Beyond that, journalists doublecheck when they’re uncertain about something. When numbers are involved. When they sense hesitation in a person’s voice. When the topic is complex. When a person’s words are ambiguous. When the material is sensitive. Still, inevitably, things fall through the cracks.

When that happens, it’s often a lesson in the need for improved vigilance or better procedures.

But you’ve got to draw a line somewhere. If you become too obsessive about doublechecking (Is that your real name?), you’ll never finish your other work.

After all, assumptions don’t always make an “ass” out of “u” and “me.” Most of the time, they help us function in a fast-paced society. They allow us to toss junkmail and delete spam after a quick glance. To calculate when to leave for appointments. To hear words and understand what they mean.

But occasionally, for good reasons, we make bad assumptions.

I see those cases less as a lesson in vigilance than in the randomness of life. In how even careful, responsible doublecheckers can skid on the black ice of a simple phrase that has two opposite but perfectly reasonable meanings.

In those cases, I say get the truth out, run the correction and go easy when others make similar mistakes. It’s a complicated world and it’s amazing we communicate as well as we do.

So mea culpa and forge ahead.

And by the way, if you want to donate to the Gaston baseball team’s fundraiser, send that check to 306 “Park” Street, not “Clark” Street, as I wrote at the story’s end. I definitely should have doublechecked.




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