Misquotes lead to distrust

Published 1:06 am Saturday, September 13, 2008

When I tell people that I work for a newspaper, it almost seems like their opinion of me subconsciously changes. They become protective of what they say, as if I’m going to immediately run off and write a shocking story about that conversation, broadcasting it to the world and bringing ruin upon their reputation.

I realize that is just a consequence of the field in which I have chosen to make my career. People are always going to be distrustful of the media, even in small towns like Andalusia, because of the considerable pull it still has on the public and public perception. There is a reason the old axiom was written, “It’s never smart to pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”

I have been asked before, “Why did you pick this quote rather than this one?” or “Why did you decide to talk about this subject more than that?” Editorial judgment is one of my responsibilities as a journalist, and it is one I try to take seriously. I want to tell the most important parts of the story and leave out the fluff, while still staying true to the original meaning of the story.

I wish I could say the same for some of the others in this profession. I am speaking specifically of an incident that has been in the mainstream news recently, dealing with Alaska Gov. and Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

The incident concerns a talk that Palin gave to ministry students at an Assembly of God church in her hometown of Wasilla, Alaska. The Associated Press story dealt with a particular quote she gave in that talk, where she is reported as saying:

“Our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God,” she said. “That’s what we have to make sure that we’re praying for, that there is a plan and that plan is God’s plan.”

Almost instantly, the controversial “task from God” statement exploded across the Internet. Various left-leaning blogs painted Palin as no better than Islamic fundamentalists, who justify their jihad by saying it is God’s will. Those blogs suggested Palin is an extremist that will make knee-jerk decisions of natural security simply because she believes that is what “her God” wants.

There is only one problem. That is not what Palin said. The actual video of Palin’s speech is thankfully available online at YouTube and can be transcribed correctly:

“Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right also for this country. That our leaders, our national leaders, are sending them out on a task that is from God. That’s what we have to make sure that we’re praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God’s plan.”

See the difference? The single omitted word — “that”— changes the tone of Palin’s comment from “The war is God’s will” to, “Hopefully, we are doing God’s will.”

The omission of the word “that” seems to be deliberate, aimed at distorting Palin’s true meaning. Yet, it is something that has come to be expected from today’s mainstream media. I just wish their spin didn’t cause people to judge me just when I say, “I work for a newspaper.”