“ADHD Comes to the Newsroom”
As a journalist with ADHD, I might misspell names on rare occasion. But having attention deficit doesn’t make me a worse reporter; it makes me a better one.
I get people’s names wrong. I’ve always stumbled over spelling, and being a Terena (not a Teresa) gives me the right to assume that vowels and consonants do not always appear as they sound. When I was in kindergarten, I was diagnosed with visual perceptual disorder, a learning disability wherein your brain doesn’t correctly process what your eyes see. It’s completely different from dyslexia: Reading has never been hard for me. But instead of breaking down words into letters or phonemes, I swallow them whole. Words to me are complete, not made from smaller parts. I can read a word thousands of times, but unless I’ve heard it spoken, I have no idea how to pronounce it. I also can’t spell.
In the tenth grade, when I was finally diagnosed with attention deficit, my mother wondered if the doctors were wrong. What if I didn’t have visual perceptual after all? What if spelling was just another set of details upon which I couldn’t focus? What if skipping letters was just an inattentive-type symptom of ADHD?
I don’t know whether she was on to something. I’m not a shrink. I’m a journalist, and all I know is that I’ve lately formed the habit of filing articles with a source’s name spelled wrong here or there. I’ve changed Juncker to Junker, Lovrien to Loren. I’ve wondered if it happens because I’ve been working too quickly, having to turn out so many words a week in order to pay the bills. But I know it’s not. I know I’m not sloppy. I’m dedicated. And like most journalists, I meticulously fact check and proofread before going to press. But, unlike most journalists, I have ADHD.
It’s a dangerous problem to have. In journalism, accuracy comes first. “Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair,” says the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, “Journalists should take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it.”
I do. I humbly apologize to my editor every time an expert comes to me, saying he appreciates the article but wants me to know he works at Fannie Mae, not Sallie Mae. I send a carefully worded email in which I balance being mortified with trying not to be too self-deprecating, in which I take accountability for my mistake and explain how I plan to keep it from happening again. And I do try. I verify spellings on LinkedIn, I copy and paste sources’ names directly from their email signatures. But somehow Johnson becomes Jonson and the cycle starts over, leaving me each time praying my editor will want to work with me again.
This does not happen often. I write around 130 stories a year — more than most freelance writers — and, of that, maybe six will have an error. It just happened twice in the past couple of weeks, though. And, as a journalist, I don’t want it to happen at all. Not just because of ethics. You can be an ethical person and still mess up. Because we live in an era when the public no longer trusts the press and I don’t want my typing Davidson instead of Davisson to be what pushes someone further away.
In journalism, one mistake is too many.
I became a writer long before I learned that I have ADHD, but today I wondered if I should stop reporting; if the public doesn’t deserve someone better, someone who sees that Manzalevskaia is clearly not the same as Manzalevkaia.
Then I remembered that what the public needs more than the right vowel or consonant is truth — and someone gifted enough with words to tell that truth in a way they’ll actually hear it. If everyone with ADHD stopped telling stories because we spell things wrong, the truth would be incomplete. Having attention deficit doesn’t make me a worse reporter; it makes me a better one.
I see the angles other writers overlook. After getting distracted on the State of Florida website, I found a coding glitch that had kept Hurricane Irma evacuation information from getting translated. I wrote about it in The Atlantic and the state learned about its error in time to fix the problem, getting life-saving information to millions. The article won an American Society of Journalists and Authors award. I never would have written it if I didn’t have ADHD. Someone without attention deficit would have been too focused to start randomly spelunking in government website code.
If this is my burden, occasionally humiliating myself because I made Azakiah Azariah, then I suppose I’ll have to deal. I was born with ADHD, same as some are born with blue eyes instead of brown. Attention deficit is caused by an underproduction of neurotransmitters in my brain and it will never go away. If I can’t see the glory of my work in this job, chances are I wouldn’t see it in another.
I like myself, and I love my ADHD at work. The right editors do, too.