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Tough standards make for accurate reporting

August 09, 2008|By JOHN LEAGUE

When I was in high school and college, I knew a fair number of people who wanted to become doctors, dentists and pharmacists.

One thing stood between them and their dream, an undergraduate course called organic chemistry. As I understood it, passing organic chemistry was mandatory for admission to medical and pharmacy school.

I have no idea what organic chemistry is. I was smart enough to know my academic limitations and avoided those courses like I now avoid the Capital Beltway. But I had a few friends who said that course - or their inability to complete it - effectively ended their medical school plans.

At West Virginia University's journalism school, the equivalent of organic chemistry was Journalism 118, advanced news writing. The course was taught by a taskmaster, professor Paul Atkins. A lot of students feared that class because they knew it could make you or break you.

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Word was that professor Atkins gave out only one "A" each semester of J-118. I wanted that "A."

I was supremely confident I had done an excellent job with the final assignment, nailing the writing and reporting, and assuring my "A" in the course.

Unfortunately, I did not follow all of the directions. I handed in the assignment on yellow copy paper, the color of paper used at The Daily Athenaeum, the student newspaper where I worked. The assignment said the paper was supposed to be written on white paper, the color of paper made available at the J-school lab.

Professor Atkins docked me 10 points. As a result, I got a "B" in the class, my final average falling 1 point short of an "A."

It was a great lesson for a college student, particularly one who had a habit of skipping or being thoroughly bored by small details. If you don't follow all of the directions, or get all of the details right, you're not going to survive as a journalist, or be successful at a lot of things, for that matter.

The world needs more curmudgeons, and I honor professor Atkins with that label. That I still remember the class is evidence of its impact. I was 20 at the time. I'm 53 now.

I'm a believer that each newsroom needs someone like professor Atkins, an editor who makes young reporters find the detail, check the spelling of a name, double-check an official's title, know that it's Dual Highway, not Duel Highway, and have a command of grammar.

At The Herald-Mail, that person is Linda Duffield, our city editor.

Linda works with the students who participate in our internship program. Our program is simple: We give students assignments, and tell them to report and write. Linda oversees their work, edits their copy, demands a certain standard, and holds them accountable for reaching it.

I hope our interns understand and appreciate the great resource they're working with. Linda cares about their potential because she puts the reader first. The reader seeks and deserves accuracy, completeness and detail. Linda makes no compromises at the expense of the reader.

I didn't appreciate Paul Atkins docking me 10 points at the time, but he was correct in doing so. He was tough, and I appreciate him more today than ever. He worked hard to push us to work hard. He gave every bit as much as he expected from his students.

Ditto with Linda.

Linda edits most of my columns. That's because she tells me the truth, not what I want to hear. (To be fair, Terry Headlee is good at that too. But Linda's been editing my stuff for 23 years, longer than anyone at The Herald-Mail.) If I write something stupid, she'll tell me to change it, or she changes it for me. She catches the small mistakes, too.

Colleges need instructors like professor Atkins, and newspapers need editors like Linda.

I'm lucky to have worked with both.

John League is editor and publisher of The Herald-Mail.

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