STEVE BOUSER: When Geese Are Transformed Into Ducks
That is, until I picked up that day's paper (Aug. 16). On page A10, there was a nice black-and-white feature photo -- vintage Glenn Sides stuff. And here's how the caption (we call them "cutlines" in the trade) read: "Some ducks enjoy a recent tranquil morning along the banks of the lake at Southern Pines Reservoir Park."
What was so bad about that? Just that the waterfowl in the photo weren't "some ducks." Though they were pretty far away from the camera, a glance revealed the distinctive white throat patches of what I should think would be one of the most recognizable bird species in North America: the Canada goose. (And while I'm on the subject, please don't call them "Canadian" geese. It's Canadian bacon, but it's Canada goose.)
Staff members who shall remain nameless were chagrined when I walked (OK, stomped) out of my office to point out the error. Knowing what a stickler I am on matters of this kind, they thought they had double-checked the species identification in my absence. But somewhere along the line, they had been misinformed.
Ducks?! Reader Clark Groseth e-mailed: "Apparently your caption writer doesn't know how to duck or get goosed."
Things like this have bedeviled me throughout my career as an editor. Considering how smart they are for the most part, newsroom types (often young and products of cities) can be surprisingly clueless -- or at least not as anal as I am -- when it comes to critter species awareness.
Too often, they take a guess and get as close as they can, forgetting Mark Twain's warning that "the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug."
The results must sometimes be thigh-slappingly amusing to rural readers and others in the know.
Melissa Breedlove, whose graceful and gracious presence we still miss around our newsroom, had trouble with these things. I once chided her for generically referring to an American robin -- surely the most recognizable bird species in America -- as "a bird" in a close-up color photo.
After I complained that that was like referring to a dog or a cow as "a mammal" or "an animal," Melissa and others got into the habit of e-mailing digital photos of various mystery species to the experts at the Weymouth Woods Nature Preserve for identification.
More recently, a mockingbird on a roof was also about to get labeled as a one-size-fits-all "bird" in our pages, until I caught it on a proof.
City-raised journalists also have problems with firearm calibers and such (automatics routinely get referred to as revolvers and vice versa), not to mention farm animals and implements.
Almost anything a farmer gets photograph-ed doing on his tractor is in danger of getting described as "plowing," just as a mule stands a pretty good chance of being called a horse in print.
I'm the furthest thing from an expert on birds -- never mind mules -- but I've taken an interest in our feathered friends and their correct nomenclature ever since a great-aunt gave me the classic book "Eastern Land Birds" for Christmas when I was 8 or so. (This particular great-aunt, whom I always wondered about even at that tender age, provided me with my first great example of a Freudian slip when she inscribed the book: "I hope you enjoy this as much as I did when I was a boy.")
While I'm on this subject, I'll never forget something that a reporter named Ken Garfield wrote not long after I hired him back in the 1970s at The News Herald in Morganton. He is now the esteemed religion editor of The Charlotte Observer, but back then he was a bright kid fresh from New York state.
In a story about a chicken that had somehow gotten inside the Burke County courthouse and created consternation among the secretaries, Ken reported that an animal control officer took the trespassing fowl away after he "tied its hind legs together."
A concerned reader wrote in to ask, "But what did he do about its front legs?"
Then there was the classified advertising clerk that my wife, Brenda, once overheard taking an order at The Shelby Star.
"I'd like to advertise a cow for sale," the caller said.
"Yes, sir," the clerk replied, starting to fill out the form. "Is it a male or female?" ...
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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