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Crosstalk: Embarrassing times on the job

While I have a file drawer full of journalism awards, looking back over the years, it’s often the mistakes that come to mind.

I’ve made a lot of them.

There was, for example, the time I cost one lady an election.

I was working as a photographer/reporter at the Siuslaw News in Florence, on the Oregon Coas,t and it was election season. There were a lot of candidates, and I was busy churning out stories and mug shots.

I had wrapped up the stories, deadline was hot on my heels and...I could not find her mug shot. I knew I had taken it, and the darkroom technician swore she hadn’t seen another roll.

I searched my camera bag; I searched my car. I was using a photographer’s vest at the time — a light vest with a gazillion pockets, and I searched that as well. Twice. Deadline overtook me, and the candidate’s story ran without the photo I had taken.

She was rather upset, pointing out that although people didn’t know her name, they would have recognized her photograph. They didn’t, she lost, and it was all my fault.

Which could well have been true. Mistakes get made, and when they get made in newspaper work, they often have serious consequences.

A couple of weeks later I found the roll of film in one of the many pockets in the photographer’s vest. I still don’t understand how I missed it.

That wasn’t my first mistake, nor was it my last. At about the same time, I did a story on a man who had spent much of his youth as an animal trapper. I enjoyed the interview, the photographs were great. I was writing up the story when I realized I didn’t have his name in my notes. But he had given me a trapping magazine to read, and his name and address were on the mailing stamp. Or so I thought — turned out it wasn’t his magazine, and the story ran under another man’s name.

As my editor said at the time, you can never assume anything — “you will just make an ASS out of U and ME!” I learned to check and double-check, to assume nothing.

For the most part it worked. Sure, there was the day I was working for the Chronicle and the editor sent me out for a “Grip-and-Grin” photograph, also known in the business as a “Shake and Bake” or “Stand Alone.” No doubt you’ve seen a thousand of them: One subject (or more) is pictured shaking hands with another, presenting a check or gift, or simply smiling at the camera.

Below the photograph, the caption explains what they are smiling about and gives their names.

I arrived for the photograph, and there was quite a crowd assembled.

My philosophy was to make every photograph as good as it could be, and I carefully arranged the group — not as easy as it sounds — and took my first photograph. I was shooting with a 35mm film camera, and when I worked the lever to advance the film there was no feeling of resistance. I checked and sure enough, there was no film in my camera. “Hold on a moment,” I told them. I dug into my camera bag for a fresh roll of film... and came up empty.

I was tempted to pretend to take the photos and plead technical difficulties at a later date, but I didn’t. They waited patiently while I ran back to the office.

As I rushed into the newsroom and loaded my camera, the editor asked what was wrong. “I went out without film,” I said. A reporter said, “Wow, I thought I was the only one that did that sort of thing, not the photographer.” I told her that my purpose in doing so was to make everyone feel more competent, in comparison to myself, and rushed out.

Then there was the time I dropped my camera at church, in the middle of a prayer; the time I dropped my lens off a cliff on the Oregon Coast; the time my tripod tipped over and the lens came off, taking the entire face of the camera with it. The time I...

Well, you get the idea. The path to newsprint is never easy.

— Mark Gibson

My most embarrassing moment as a journalist had nothing to do with my profession and everything to do with my laundry habits.

I was sitting in a county meeting as the reporter for a small weekly when I noticed a problem with my panty hose. Since I was not wearing any because it was summer, there should not have been a taupe toe hanging below the hem of my pants.

I ran my hand down my leg and, sure enough, a pair of panty hose was balled up inside my blue dress slacks and appeared poised to slide out onto the floor. Seems like running out of fabric softener and then drying polyester and nylons together might not have been a good idea.

I had to contemplate how to handle that moment in a room crowded with people. It was obviously not going to be easy to remove the hose without attracting attention and, as a cub reporter, I wanted to avoid any mortifying moments (nowadays I’d probably just pull them out and laugh).

The meeting seemed to take forever, but that allowed me time to come up with an exit strategy. I surreptiously pulled the hosiery mass to the edge of my pant leg where I could easily reach it.

When people finally stood up to leave, I reached down, snatched the wad and stuck it behind my legal pad in one smooth move. People might have noticed something, but they could not really be sure what they saw with such fast action (or, at least that’s what I told myself).

On a more professional note, I once wrote a story with a major typo that caused the publisher apoplexy.

The sentence in that article should have read: “Due to economic constraints, she was forced to shut her business down.” Only the word “shut” had an “i” in it. We sold more papers that week and got plenty of laughing response from readers. It was, in fact, the only paper my children ever saved. However, I had to call the subject of the story and tell her what had happened. She was very gracious.

As a journalist for more than 20 years, I have had a lot of disasters with film and camera equipment. The top has popped off a roll of film (we used to hand roll them) many times, and I have lunged to get it out of the light in hopes of salvaging some pics.

With the advent of digital, I have shown up at scenes with no memory card in my camera, or a bad battery that lets me get only one shot before shutting down.

I have stood in the pouring rain trying to keep the camera lens dry enough to capture a moment — and during one storm had to be told by a police officer to remove myself from the thin layer of pavement over a sinkhole.

Sometimes I forget to bring a notebook (Mark always keeps a backup handy), or I have to borrow a pen.

One time I was driving down the road (close your eyes police types) when I got a long-awaited call on my cell from a source. I did not have paper and pen handy to write down some badly needed contact information, so I grabbed lipstick out of my purse and a store receipt and scribbled while driving.

On one particularly bad day, I went into the field with U.S. Forest Service officials to walk the site of a proposed new trail right after a summer downpour. Not only was the vegetation we pushed through soaked, there was a horde of mosquitoes swarming around us.

By the time I got back to the office, my shoes were squishing, and I told the editor I was going home due to loss of blood.

Truly, I could go on and on, but you get the idea … This job is all about adaptability and learning how to keep going because there are plenty of embarrassing moments when every mistake you make is read by thousands of people, some of whom feel compelled to ridicule you.

Being a journalist is not for the faint of heart and there is no real comfort level. Every day brings something different, and you never know whether that is going to be good or bad — you just go with it.

— RaeLynn Ricarte


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