Last week the story broke that a 1940s sweater worn by football great Vince Lombardi had been found in the bins of my local Goodwill Clearance Center. To summarize the story, vintage dealers Sean and Rikki McEvoy found the sweater while shopping in the store last June. They did not realize how important the sweater was until viewing a documentary on Lombardi some time later, and Sean noted that the sweater was similar to one he saw Lombardi wearing in the program. Rikki remembered there was a name tag in the sweater, they got it out, and sure enough, the label read “Lombardi.”
The sweater is being auctioned at Heritage Auctions, with online bids being taken now, and the final sale being on February 21. The sweater is expected to sell for as much as $20,000.
Seeing as how that Goodwill is my shopping place, you might think I’m upset about not finding that gem myself. But no, I have another, more important matter to address. The reporting of this story was downright sloppy.
I admit that I’m a stickler for details. If a story is worth telling, isn’t it worth telling correctly? It’s an unsettling feeling to be reading an interesting article, and there near the end is a misstated fact. It throws doubt onto the entire article.
The first place I read about the Lombardi sweater was on the website of our local newspaper, the Asheville Citizen-Times. The second sentence held a mistake that completely disrupted my train of thought:
They stopped at the Goodwill Outlet on Patton Avenue where you can purchase things for 58 cents per pound.
As far as I know, clothing at that center has never been 58 cents a pound, and I know that last June the price was over a dollar a pound, $1.09 or $1.10 if my memory is correct. It’s a small detail, one that only a shopper at the Goodwill would notice. Unfortunately for me it set the tone for the article, and I found myself scrutinizing every statement, looking for more inaccuracies.
It didn’t take long for this story to spread past Western North Carolina. The next article I read was on the Green Bay Press Gazette website. According to that article, Sean McEvoy is a “Nashville, Tenn., man”. Actually, Sean and Rikki live in Knoxville, Tennessee.
The local television news, WLOS 13, did a piece on the find. In it they interviewed the Goodwill district manager who stated that the sweater had to have gone through one of the retail stores where it did not sell before ending up in the outlet center. Actually, that is not true, as any of the workers in the back sorting area could have told the reporter. Things that are donated that do not meet a certain standard – like an old, full of holes wool sweater – never make it to the retail store, but go straight to the bins.
Of course the reporter could not help that she was given bad information by the person in charge. But anyone who has ever worked in a corporate (or educational) setting knows that the boss usually does not know as much about how a place operates than does the lowest employee.
I could go on and on. Fox Sports reported that McEvoy is from “Ashville, North Carolina.” Wrong place, misspelled. RTV6 spelled it as “Asherville”. CBSSports called Goodwill a pawn shop and referred to the couple as elderly, but from their photos, they look to be in their mid thirties. All the accounts I read state that the sweater cost 58 cents, but only one clarified that 58 cents was the average cost per piece that the McEvoys paid for their multiple item purchase. Bought by itself, I figure the sweater would have cost about $1.50.
Who knew that it would be so hard to get such a seemingly simple story right? Do newspaper and TV news sites actually fact-check, or proofread, for that matter? This is sending a very strong message – that quality content on websites is not as important as hurrying into the latest sensational story that is surging across the web.
What really concerns me is how this sort of misinformation eventually makes it into the “official” story of an event. An example is the story of how equestrian influences are often seen in Gucci products. Many websites and books state that Gucci started out as a maker of saddles and that is why the company decorates their loafers with a piece that looks like a horse bit. But careful research by Sara Gay Forden for her book House of Gucci, proved that was simply not true, that Gucci never was a saddler. Nevertheless, the story got started, and is still often quoted.
I realize that it is hard to get everything completely correct, which is why I appreciate it when a careful reader alerts me to my own mistakes. But it is our culture of sharing “news” that has led to an internet full of misinformation. In copying from one site to another, Asheville becomes Asherville, a thirty-something couple becomes elderly, and a thrift store becomes a pawn shop.
It calls to mind that game from childhood called “Gossip” where the first kid whispered something into the ear of the second kid, who repeated what he thought he heard into the ear of the third kid, and so on down the line. The last kid gets to say out loud what he heard, with hilarious results. “I saw a cat outside” became “High sewer cap hot pride.”
It’s time for “news” sites to stop playing this game, or to at least hire people who know how to listen to the whispering.