Get the Name of the Dog

I'm a working reporter, but I don't pretend to have all the answers about my profession or my specialty. This is why I sometimes interview dozens of people. Not to get more detail, but to get more understanding. Sometimes I need 10 hours of interviews to walk around a subject and make sure, to use an example favored by an old boss and friend, that I'm not saying that a rhinoceros has a skin comprised of bony plates.

Recently, I learned a great tip from a veteran journalist and teacher from his blog over at the Poynter Foundation. It's a long-standing mantra of Roy Peter Clark to "get the name of the dog." This means that you need what he calls "the telling detail" in a story because it takes you down from the ivory tower into the specific. It brings the story home.

I've often asked for the name of the dog, but wasn't consistent. Since reading this column a few weeks ago, I've learned a lot of dogs' names. A few weeks ago, I interviewed a fellow for a story that's coming out in a few weeks about him watching a World Cup game via streaming media. Before I was done, I said, what match was it? Who won? Turns out it was Argentina versus the Netherlands in an up-to-the-end tense bout that ended naught-naught in a tie. That's an interesting dog, right there, and explains why he was rapt through the game.

I noticed in BoingBoing today that they call out an error in a San Francisco Chronicle article in which the gas emissions from Burning Man are listed and discussed, and cupcake scooters are mentioned in a list of gas-burning items at the festival. Not so, the cupcake creators write in letters to the Chronicle.

What happened here? I know, because I've been there. The reporter either made an assumption, was told incorrectly, or read an incorrect account. For daily reporters, this is incredibly tough. You cannot run down every fact without going insane. (It's hard even for those of us who are working on a feature over six weeks that involves, say, calling three or four continents, five time zones, and 20 interviews, as one recent article that will be in print in a few weeks entailed.)

If the reporter had had the time, he or she would have called or contacted the cupcake makers and gotten the answer. This is more like, "Make sure it's a dog, not a cat," but it's the principal of fine detail that's the same.

I made an error in a piece I wrote in the New York Times a few months ago that came out in editing. It was clearly my fault for not carefully noting the change during editing that caused the error. (I had a fever, was on antibiotics, and was generally in pretty poor shape while reading the edit. Nevertheless!) Instead of a network being described as having many nodes, it was described as having a single node. I had the name of the dog right, just the size of the litter wrong. The subject involved was horribly offended, and the Times did run a correction. (In context, it was really a single word--"the"--that made the difference in interpretation.)

So we have to not just get the name, breed, and quantity of dog right, but we have to make sure that our 9-year-old twin Russian wolfhounds don't become Russian wolves before they see the light of print.

Aug. 29: Another great example from an article on a report about the alleged misuse of office by Kenneth Tomlinson, a Republican appointee who handles US broadcasting abroad, such as the Voice of America: "The State Department report noted his use of his office to oversee a stable of thoroughbreds but did not mention one specific way in which his professional responsibilities and personal interests appear to have intersected. The horses, according to track records, include Karzai, as in Hamid Karzai, and Massoud, from the late Ahmed Shah Massoud) references to Afghan leaders who have fought against the Taliban and the Russians, as well as Panjshair, the valley that was the base used by forces to overthrow the Taliban."