We’ve all been there at some point in our lives: standing in the spotlight looking and/or feeling like complete and utter fools. It’s the reason so many people experience panic attacks at the prospect of standing up in front of a group and speaking — the reason why we teach techniques for compensating for that anxiety and being prepared in public speaking courses.
Someone might get ahead in life by delivering a polished presentation that dazzles the listener, but our actual character is defined by the way we respond when we crash and burn in humiliating failure.
I’ve dedicated a good chunk of my career to writing articles in the print news media. Reporters feel a huge sense of responsibility to get facts right and share truths without bias. Do we always succeed? No. Inevitably, many news people do get something wrong or act based on hunches that don’t pan out or a source takes some heat and changes their presented version of events to save face.
Trustworthiness and credibility are the currency of the professional journalist. The saying in the biz is “To ASSUME makes an Ass of U and Me…”
Unfortunately, we’re just imperfect human beings trying to put the pieces of puzzles together, the same as detectives building evidence to file charges and prosecutors struggling to make a case that will stick.
At one of the newspapers where I worked, the editorial policy dictated that any mistakes would result in a correction on the same page where the error or omission originally appeared. Thus, any facts wrong or clarification needed would go on the front page rather than buried next to the grocery ads in the back pages. That gave us incentive to be extra cautious. No reporter wants to see a glaring admission of making a mistake right there on the front page, exposed like a gigantic pimple on the tip of someone’s nose.
Even though a libel case is difficult to bring without proof of malice, and even if the writer’s name isn’t listed in the correction, that reporter still feels a sense of deep shame when and if mistakes are set straight. Pride must be swallowed in those instances.
I’ve always tried to err on the side of caution, even at the cost of a juicy detail that would make a story more exciting for readers and prompt them to talk about it at the water cooler, thus creating buzz that hypothetically leads to increased sales. That temptation to sensationalize lingers like Satan on a branch of the forbidden tree.
Sometimes we know things off the record that make seemingly unimportant details more relevant. It takes patience to let facts develop over time in follow-up stories like photos materializing in a darkroom tray. Sometimes those details go unreported because no one will stick their neck out to share them on the public record. We have to treat those instances skeptically and make the judgment call on whether a confidential source is afraid of retribution or just plain full of shit.
Disgraced journalists like Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair live in infamy because they damage the credibility of all media and give the accused a “blame the messenger” card to shift attention from their own transgressions. Even those as mighty as Dan Rather and Lara Logan can fall from their pedestals of respectability. These cases are usually the result of a failure in the editorial chain of accountability, or worse, a systemic effort to distort reportage to affect political outcomes.
Reporters must remember to think of the people mentioned in stories as human beings rather than abstractions. Lives and reputations hang in the balance.
Journalists must also avoid any appearance of hypocrisy. My editors always told us that if we screwed up and got a DUI, for example, there’d be no exclusion of our names from the arrest blotter just because we worked for the newspaper reporting those arrests. People would regularly call and plea for us to not print something unflattering, but doing so would potentially undercut the public’s confidence in our accountability.
I’ve lost friends in my personal life because of my unwillingness to cut ethical corners in my professional capacity. Even though I haven’t punched a time clock at a newspaper in years, I still encounter people who glare at me because they feel betrayed by some past failure to cave when they asked me to bury or axe something that made them look bad. I trust that deep down they realize they may have earned my sympathy and had my ear, but their favor held less value than my integrity.
I also performed the editor’s job of gate-keeper when I supervised reporters in a newsroom. I remembered all of the times I went into an editor’s office with a red-meat story and had to defend the facts as I had compiled them in my notes. Editors serve as skeptics, and while I love blogging and reading blogs, it is sometimes glaringly apparent that no one has challenged the writer to a cross-prosecution of the details. Hell, much of what’s on the Internet is barely even curated by a reputable source.
Bloggers make an easy target, but it happens in mainstream media too. Saturday Night Live presents a regular skit where faux Fox News hosts break away to list the day’s corrections, which satirically include about 20-30 ridiculous and partisan statements.
I crave a website where I can get “just the facts” rather than the views of pundits on the far left and far right expressed in equal measure. It’s too much work for readers to take in the hyperbole of the extremes and reach conclusions based on balancing out the alternating criticisms.
We do get the media product we ask for in our consumption practices.
People these days do not like having their attitudes and preferred narratives questioned; they want to hear “reality” presented in ways that support their perceptions of how it naturally occurs. Who did you believe? O.J. Simpson? Marsha Clark? Trayvon Martin’s parents? George Zimmerman?
Think of the last time someone you admired disappointed you, perhaps tragically. It shatters your confidence and leaves you cynical, but sometimes that nasty-tasting spoonful of reality is just the medicine needed to restore confidence that you actually know what’s happening.
The most recent case of this, for me, was the revelation that Lance Armstrong had indeed cheated after he flat out lied to all of us in repeated appeals for the public to buy his version of events over what turned out to be the truth. At the time, I felt disappointed in her for breaking up with such a great guy, but Armstrong’s admission of guilt altered my perception of the circumstances that might have led Sheryl Crowe to leave their relationship. We truly make judgment calls based on the facts we have from moment to moment.
Such cases make us less eager to label anyone else as a hero. How can anyone still think of pro athletes as role models when they’re routinely exposed for taking performance-enhancing drugs that give them an unfair advantage?
Liars do a great disservice to others by feeding our collective skepticism. Those who legitimately claim victimhood suffer needlessly because of those who get called out – such as the waitress who recently presented an allegedly doctored receipt as evidence that someone left a harsh criticism of her homosexuality as a tip instead of money. News reports say she got fired after the couple recognized their receipt and produced an original, un-tampered version.
Unfortunately for her, this waitress picked one of the few among us who both keep receipts handy and are lucky enough to see the news report to recognize our handwriting on the receipt. Absent those circumstances, this waitress might still be gleefully allowing others to feel unwarranted outrage and shower her with sympathy. Instead, she’s unemployed and probably getting shunned by friends who feel conned.
No one aware of this woman’s story will accept any more of her claims outright. She will henceforth be presumed to be lying until she makes a solid case she’s telling the truth. It’s the same with disgraced media.
A publisher at a newspaper offered me an editor’s position, but I declined his offer after asking some routine questions to which he essentially revealed that he would always favor an advertiser in coverage if faced with a reader complaint about a business in the community. He offered no ambiguity about his willingness to bury a story to appease someone who helps pay his bills (or even someone of prominence in the community), at the expense of his readers’ trust.
A huge red flag! I couldn’t see myself playing a part in activities that would risk our reputations, especially with the sense that if it all went south, he’d try to pin it on me to save himself. He just seemed like that kind of guy. Sometimes you trust your gut to fill in the blanks.
Certainly, a reporter must be fair and reasonably attempt to represent both sides in coverage, but simply killing a story because it might embarrass an ally is the cardinal sin of the profession.
From my studies on crisis communications planning, I know that stating “No Comment” to a reporter may be perceived in the court of public opinion as admitting that you did whatever you’re accused of and can’t risk incriminating yourself by talking loosey goosey to a reporter who may misquote you. This is definitely a tough situation to face.
We must resist the urge, as consumers and producers of news, to rush to judgment and remember that our judicial system follows the assumption of innocence until guilt is proven. Biased reporters walk the same path as kangaroo courts.
All hail the journalist who has been spared the humiliation of bungled reportage for this is indeed a rare creature in the age of blogging and partisan coverage. May we forever look to Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite for inspiration and guidance.