Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - June 12, 2009

Just the facts

A few weeks ago, while our two girls were busy shopping for clothes in Topeka, husband Art and I stopped in at booksellers Barnes and Noble. Art's eye was caught by TV reporter John Stossel's book, "Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity: Get Out the Shovel - Why Everything You Know is Wrong." The girls called to let us know they had finished before I had a chance to really look at the book, but I have a hunch the title pretty well says it all.

I thought about the book's title in relation to an Associated Press article that made a passing comment about the April 20, 1999 Columbine High School shootings as being the most deadly school incident in U.S. history. In reality, it wasn't even number two or three.

On May 18, 1927 a dynamite bomb was detonated in the cellar of the Bath, Michigan consolidated school. Forty-five people were killed, more than the number who died in the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting or the 1966 University of Texas at Austin shooting. Still, when people are asked about the most deadly incident at a school, it is the 1999 Columbine High School incident that most mention.

As a journalism professor, I constantly stress the importance of checking facts. But the average reporter, just like the rest of us, has a hurried schedule, and "throw-in" comments such as the one by the AP reporter referring to something we all "know" tend to escape detection.

When a similar question is asked about the deadliest fire in the history of the United States, The Great Chicago Fire that began Oct. 8, 1871 and killed at least 300 people is frequently cited. Yet no one mentions the Peshtigo fire in Wisconsin, which began the same day as the Chicago fire. That fire raged through northeastern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, destroying millions of dollars worth of property and timberland, and taking between 1,200 and 2,400 lives.

With help from the popular movie, the sinking of the Titanic and its some 1,500 victims is thought by many Americans to be the worst maritime disaster involving the U.S. Almost no one mentions the steamboat Sultana. It was about 10 miles north of Memphis when its boilers exploded in the early morning hours of April 27, 1865, killing about 1,800 of its 2,400 passengers.

Even when we are familiar with certain topics, popular misconceptions often seep into our thoughts. I, like many family historians, think about my forefathers arriving in the United States, and imagine those ancestors gazing on the Statue of Liberty before landing on Ellis Island. But most of them arrived before 1886 when there was no statue to see. And Ellis Island itself didn't become operational until 1892.

Sometimes even those who were involved in a major event tend to forget what really happened. When my students were interviewing folks last year who had lived through World War II, I don't recall if anyone mentioned that somewhere between 85 and 92 percent, depending on the poll cited, of Americans were opposed to getting involved in the war until Pearl Harbor was bombed.

I doubt Stossel had much trouble coming up with examples of things most of us believe that are just wrong. Memory - even collective memory - is sometimes just not reliable and can deceive us. And reporters are no more immune to this sort of thing than the rest of us. All we can do is to keep pressing the "check-your-facts" button.

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