My lesson came from my first journalism professor at Texas A&M, Bill Harrison. He was a good mentor for the written word and one of his pet peeves was misspellings, which he punished heavily, something like dropping your score on an assignment by 10 points for each mistake.
But here’s the birthplace of my lesson.
He told us he never marked a word as misspelled without first looking it up to make sure he was correct.
Did he exaggerate by saying “never”? Maybe, maybe not, but the point was clear. I formed the habit early in my career, if the shadow of a doubt crossed my mind, I double-checked spelling or whether I was using the word correctly.
When I reached the point I was running a newsroom, it almost became a joke. If I overheard someone ask how a word was spelled or the correct style for something, I’d yell out, “Look it up.” The reason, of course, was a co-worker would often give an incorrect answer.
It’s still a habit of mine, though I rely more on the computer and an online dictionary, but the application of his lesson is much broader. For instance, I try to practice his words before sharing tidbits online. If I cannot validate a cute post purporting something as fact, I’m not likely to share it, regardless how much I want it to be true.
In fact, if I learn through a reputable site that a post is inaccurate – a lie generated by someone to push an agenda of disrespect, for example – then I will point that out in a comment. Recently, I’ve taken to asking for the removal of the post to keep the lie from spreading because other people will see and share it without ever reading the rebuttal in the comments.
At times, I’ve had people refuse because they recognize that a widespread falsehood is taken as truth by many people who are accustomed to being fed lies to perpetuate attitudes of superiority.
This is not akin to accidentally misspelling a word. It is a misrepresentation of truth. At times, it is libelous. Always, it is wrong.
I’m confident Bill Harrison wouldn’t just mark off 10 points, he’d mark it down to 0.