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When Attempts At Humor Go Wrong: The Robert Tychkowski Story

Feel like taking a unwarranted crack at Detroit? You won't get 10 feet around here without someone calling you out.

Journalists are always looking for ways to hook people into reading their stories. A clever headline, picture, opening line; all are ways that keep people from turning the page (or clicking a different link for all you kids out there). The more readers or site visits you get, the better it is for your advertising revenue.

Good writing or presentation also increases your reputation. The better your reputation, the more likely it is that people will read your stuff regardless of the topic or quality.

But sometimes we as journalists go too far in trying to lure that elusive reader. Enter Robert Tychkowski of the Edmonton Sun.

Unless you live under a rock, most people in the metro Detroit area know who Tychkowski is. He's the Edmonton Oilers beat writer for the Edmonton Sun and paid a visit to Detroit this past week to cover his Oilers' attempt at taking down the Detroit Red Wings. All was well in Motown until people read the opening lines of his preview story for the game:

DETROIT — Welcome to Detroit, where the forecast, as always, is muggy, with a chance of murder. When you’re trying to breathe a little life back into your year, this is not the place to visit. And not just because they use more white chalk at crime scenes than they ever did in the schools.

Red Wings blogs across the nation called Tychkowski on his folly and responded in full force. After the game on Friday, Tychkowski told Cheryl Chodun of WXYZ in Detroit that his inbox had been flooded with about 70-80 emails. Blogger Andy from Fight Night at the Joe emailed the writer and told him what he thought about his trashing of Detroit, getting only this snide response from Tychkowski himself:

Feel free to walk the streets here at night. I'll notify the next of kin.

In that same WXYZ interview, Tychkowski remained defiant, defending his use of the "Murder City" jab. He said he probably wouldn't use it again, but also said many of his friends had used the reference before, saying it wasn't "entirely inaccurate."

Just because your friends are doing it isn't a legitimate defense, Robert.

I'm a journalism student myself, and every time an issue like this comes up with a writer, I cringe. People don't have a lot of patience with the media, and when someone makes an unprovoked attack like this it only furthers the bad perception.

Making it even worse is the fact that Tychkowski has yet to apologize, and that won't sit well with Detroiters, especially Red Wings fans. 

Red Wings fans have long memories. When someone comes after them, they don't let them forget about it.

Tychkowski's reaction to the feedback tells me one of two things. Either he genuinely doesn't know what he did wrong, or worse: he doesn't care. 

For those who are not well versed in our field, allow me take you and Tychkowski through Journalism 101. It is our job to report the news in a way that the average person can understand it in a fair, unbiased way. The only time our opinions are allowed is in a column or editorial, such as the one you're reading right now. All other quotes, references and statistics should be accompanied by the source.

Speaking of sources, Tychkowski claimed that his original assertion wasn't entirely inaccurate. However there have been reports in the past five years that show crime in downtown Detroit, where the Red Wings are based, is significantly lower than national averages. While there have been recent crime spikes in the area, homicide rates have fallen dramatically in the first half of 2010. The chance of falling victim to a violent crime on your way to a Wings game is much lower than in other areas of the city.

So Robert, who was your source that told you they use more chalk at the crime scenes than in the schools here? What source said the forecast for Thursday was "muggy with a chance of murder?"

Humor is often used as a way to draw people into a story. A catchy lead helps keep the reader around longer, as most people usually only read the first two to three paragraphs of a story before moving on. However, there's a time and place for humor. Jokes like the one Tychkowski made don't have a place anywhere.

Perhaps the worst thing about this for Tychkowski is that this was avoidable. All he had to do was stick to the topic. Instead, he tried to interject Detroit's struggle with crime into a hockey story, which have no relation to each other at all. Maybe he should have tried something like this, from our very own Sports Network preview:

While Taylor Hall's career will likely have a number of ups and downs, the Edmonton rookie is getting ready to respond to one of his biggest challenges in the NHL to date.

After getting benched late in the Oilers' most recent game, the top pick of the 2010 draft will hope he gets a chance to help his club get on track tonight in a road matchup with the streaking Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena.

Simple, effective and tells a good subplot about the game in Hall's previous benching. No mention that Hall is risking his life by visiting downtown Detroit.

It's still not too late for Tychkowski. He can fix all this by issuing a simple apology to Red Wings fans and the city of Detroit. When a journalist makes a mistake like this, the best way to fix it is to issue an apology as quickly as possible. The longer something drags on, the worse it usually gets.

That's Public Relations 101. But that's an entirely different story.