Friday, June 1, 2012

A Journalist's Life: The Observer on the Fringes

Recently a friend of mine decided to try her hand stringing for a paper and covering a local school board.

The problem was that the editor had assigned her to the school district where her children attend. A busing controversy was on the table for discussion. My friend covered the meeting and quoted parents who were against the initiative.

And if you're a journalist, you can probably guess what happened next: The people who were quoted said they never said what they said.

(We've heard that before, haven't we?)

Luckily, my friend had the backing of witnesses and also a recording. In fact, she'd quoted the folks accurately, and as you already know, they were just angry that they were spotlighted as the jackasses they really are.

Now you'd think it would stop there, but it heats up a little: These people also were my friend's friends. So right on the heels of this story, there was a birthday party ... and then following that, there were other social events .... and if you've ever covered a nasty story where everyone is throwing rocks at each other, you know the result: My friend has been dealing with some pretty nasty comments, gossip and ostracism.

As a stringer who had no experience covering local stories, it's understandable how someone could find themselves in this position. And as I've been talking to her about how to deal with it, it has brought up some introspection and revelation about myself and my career.

I discovered that I've always been an observer of life on the fringes. I started my career at age 23 and am now 47. That's 24 years of watching people. Even after I left newsrooms 12 years ago to go full-time freelancing, I never really jumped full-force into the pool of society. Maybe it was out of habit. Maybe it was out of fear. Maybe it was from cynicism that I knew people were not as they portrayed themselves. Maybe it was from simple lack of social skill development! After all, I've kept the rest of society at bay purposely.

The bottom line here is that as journalists, we can't afford the luxury of being in the world like everybody else. If you're going to cover a story, you have to remain objective. That's impossible to do if you're friends with those involved with the subject matter. Kudos to you if you've pulled this off, but face it. We're all human. Eventually, someone is going to get to you.

You may be skeptical that I have kept up this mantra for two-and-a-half decades.

But after I thought about my friend's scenario, I realized that I really have. My closest friends are those who worked alongside me in newsrooms -- or were friends of those newsroom friends. Those of you who know me might say, "Well you're a Christian. Certainly you have friends from church." Nope! I had many cases where people within churches didn't want to socialize with me because they knew I was a reporter. I had another scenario where I questioned the finances of one church where I'd gotten heavily involved and was attacked on the Internet by those members.

Whether it's by personality or the constricts of the journalist's job .... If you're thinking of getting into this profession, please know this right up front: You will see people as they are, and you are not going to be popular. If you're not okay with that, find another profession, for your own peace of mind.

And if you are ... welcome to the brotherhood that we call, "Journalist."


  1. And to the sisterhood we call "journalists"! My situation has been dicey, as you know. In hindsight there was a CLEAR conflict of interest in my covering the story, and even though I had raised this issue with the editor beforehand, she (who does not have kids) said "Are you saying you cannot be objective?" Of course, I said I could be objective (and I was). (I wasn't going to say I couldn't...pride and self-esteem and all...). So, objective I was and truthful I was and WOW. I have paid a heavy price for that. It's been good, in a way, for me to have to contemplate when personal ethics get in the way of professional ones. *Professionally* I feel I lived up to journalistic standards, but I did, in hindsight, make a big ethical mistake *personally*. I could have quoted them anonymously and still had a good article. Instead, because the editor said (thinking as a journalist, of course), "They were at a public meeting and you can name them and SHOULD name them" I used names. It would have been much, much better, in hindsight, for me either to refuse to cover the story or, at the very least, to grant these parents anonymity in what was a very heated and emotional meeting. Sigh. A big lesson learned. Thanks for your friendship! E

  2. I think you handled it properly, and in actuality, if you'd quoted them anonymously, your integrity would have suffered.

    The person at fault was the editor for assigning it to you and throwing that "can you be objective?" question at you. It's a trick question that no one can win.

    Given everything you've been through, you've handled it with grace and aplomb. It's a sad reality of our business that when push comes to shove, people's true characters shine out, and as the messenger, we are the ones who are blamed for their flaws.

  3. You are very kind. I think I made a mistake, actually. But I seem unable to atone for it!

  4. By the way...I am extremely fond of this editor and don't want her to come across as anything other than somebody who adheres to the highest of journalistic standards. If there was a mistake, it was in her (*and I*) not thinking through sufficiently the repercussions of a *parent* covering this meeting. She doesn't have kids, so perhaps we can forgive her being unaware of the hornets' nest that can be public schools (or private ones, for that matter!).

  5. Hindsight is 20-20.

    Just remember that the only people to blame are those who stood up at the meeting and spoke. It's a free country to be sure, but people need to be aware that with that comes the privilege of a free press.

    We are that press, and we make no apologies for reporting the facts.

    If it means a lifetime of fewer "friends," I'm all for it. It's a lifestyle I have embraced, knowing that true friends would never treat me badly for doing my job and also knowing that any ostracism is worth keeping the freedom alive.

    You did well!