Wednesday, June 27, 2007
When I got into her car, she was on her cell phone, talking a mile a minute and an octave higher than her normal voice. When she hung up, she apologized for being distracted, and shoved a print-out of a blurb from a newspaper in my direction.
"Look at this," she said.
Dance saved Kim James from challenging circumstances growing up in Alexandria. Today it's her life. She directs Dream in Color, a nonprofit group that offers dance classes to economically disadvantaged youths in Northern Virginia. "I discovered that the single factor that helped me get past adverse circumstances as a child -- circumstances that others in my family couldn't overcome -- was dance," James says.The paragraphs may seem innocuous to most, but for those who work for Dream in Color -- Kim as its founder, me as a part-time instructor -- they just weren't accurate.
Now she uses dance to help youngsters lose weight. "I am concerned that the obesity rate is so very high, in the African American community in particular," James says.
The first sentence, particularly because of the word "saved," made me conjure images of a young Kim running for her life through the ghettoes of Alexandria, her brown hair flailing behind her in the wind -- something I knew didn't happen. Yeah, there were some issues in her family, but as far as I knew, her childhood was mostly happy and stable.
Then there was the helping "youngsters lose weight" part. In my two years with the group, Dream in Color's mission statement never said anything about trying to slim down kids. If anything, the program encourages kids of all shapes and sizes to dance. Kim often tells the story of how her childhood dance teachers told her her backside was too big for ballet, and how she didn't have the "right shape" for dance. She started the foundation to make sure other children didn't have to hear that. Still, the writer seemed to use Kim's concern about obesity to paint Dream in Color as a weight loss program.
"What kind of noise is this?" I said when I finished reading. "It makes us sound like a fat camp."
"I know!" she replied. "A black, ghetto fat camp. She could've gone to the Web site and saw what the whole point of the studio is."
Kim showed me an e-mail she sent to the Post, complaining about the assumptions made in the piece. I was slightly amused because her complaint was longer than the blurb itself. But it all reminded me of how important accuracy is. It's crucial.
Editors at my job had always warned me never to assume anything. Write the facts, they say, but never make any conclusions without verifying them. It seems simple, but we can make assumptions without even knowing it. I have on a number of occasions. Luckily I work with sharp-as-a-needle editors who point out even the smallest items of concern. And with their help, I've become sharper at separating the facts from assumptions.
What's the damage done from a little blurb? Who knows. But whether a story is big or small, it has no room for anything but the facts. continue...