Unfortunately that happened yesterday when a breathtakingly inflammatory article in The New York Times appeared to blame the six young Irish victims for their own deaths in Berkeley this week.
To most readers of the article, myself included, it seemed that the structural failure (the dry rot of the balcony wood ) was being blamed on the character failures of the students.
Where insightful reporting on the causes of the tragedy were called for the paper instead casually produced a sort of unthinking 19th century Thomas Nast style national libel. It was journalistic finger-pointing at its worst.
J-1 students, the paper wrote with uncharacteristic hyperbole, had “become not just a source of aspiration, but also a source of embarrassment for Ireland...” Complaints about the tone of the article rightly centered on that egregious comment, but the overall insensitivity of the piece, given the circumstances, was staggering.
There's no greater grief for a parent than the loss of a child. Six young lives have been cut short in their prime. That's an occasion for the most solemn remembrance and disciplined journalism aimed at getting the facts. These were young Irish college students - and outstanding ones at that by all accounts - and that is how they deserve to be remembered this week.
A moment's reflection should have given someone at The Times serious pause over the tone and content of the offending article. The timing was so insensitive, the disregard so complete, that what was written enraged everyone who encountered it.
Later in the piece I saw myself quoted from a report that I wrote in 2014 about an unrelated incident involving the lamentable behavior of some Irish students in San Francisco a year earlier.
That kind of bad behavior is fair game, but that kind of behavior was not in evidence in Berkeley this week. Nevertheless my sentiments about the bad behavior of some stendents in 2014 was apparently being repurposed to condemn them all.
But I know that a structural failure isn't a character failure, and certainly not a national one. Dry rot is not a character failing. And according to a report on IrishCentral yesterday, experts believe that dry rot is the reason for the collapse of a fourth-floor balcony that killed the six Irish students.
In fact, according to Darrick Hom, president of the Structural Engineers Assn. of Northern California, the wood was so deteriorated that it broke off at the touch of workers at the scene. The Mayor of Berkeley has now stated categorically it was dry rot.
Most of us have been to parties where some people drank beer or smoked a cigarette on a balcony. There's not much room for partying and so-called paddywhackery in such confined spaces.
What happened in Berkeley is most likely what the experts suggest happened: the balcony simply gave way under the stress of dry rot and thirteen people. That's not as stereotypically satisfying an explanation as a portrait of simian featured brogues, but it appears to be what occurred.
I should add that I know San Francisco very well. My teenage vacations in the city represented my first opportunity to step into myself; in fact they enriched me so much I've revered this city above all others for decades. The hold it has over me has lasted a lifetime, I am currently in San Francisco as I write this.
In 1986 I saw The Smiths play The Queen Is Dead tour in the Greek Theatre at Berkeley, just a few blocks from the scene of this week's tragedy. It was one of the most radiant summers of my life. Along the way I, like most Irish students who come to these shores, developed nothing but respect and love for the Bay Area.
That's how I know that, contrary to the Times report, the J-1 program has not been a source of embarrassment for Ireland. In fact it has been a source of immense pride. Our young people are always delighted to travel to the eastern and western seaboards and all points between, where they are received with great enthusiasm by discerning employers (and new friends).
All are usually changed for the better in a venerable coming of age process that enriches every participant; in fact, it's common for the contacts and friendships made on J-1 programs to last a lifetime.
What many Americans may not know is that tens of thousands of young Irish people have been J-1 students over the years, even our popular former president Mary McAleese was a J-1 student in California four decades ago.
Gay people are used to hearing fundamentalists blame every flood, tornado or hurricane that passes by on them; and when a tragedy befalls the Irish they have grown used to hearing it blamed on their drunkenness and supposed national weakness of character.
Both are age-old, toxic and unthinking stereotypes and they must be relentlessly called out, whether the people uttering them are street thugs or national newspapers.
Read more: New York Times apologizes for insensitive language on Irish deaths