28 September 2008

With great power comes great responsibility

So last week I had my first great big genuine journalistic fuck-up.

The story: the USF Faculty Association was holding "informational picketing" sessions last Monday and Wednesday to raise awareness about their ongoing contract negotiations with the administration.

I got in touch with the president of the USFFA and had a phone interview with him over the weekend. Then I figured I could get in touch with the rest of my sources on Monday as the picketing was going on.

The Foghorn does layout Monday night. I had Monday afternoon (my only free time after three classes) to gather the majority of my sources and write the entire 600+ word article. I quickly spoke to as many people as I could who were outside at the event, and then scrambled into the Foghorn office to get my words onto paper, fast.

The story was, I thought, a success. It was long. There were a lot of quotes. My grammar was superb and the story flowed quite nicely. A+ work, I thought.

Sometime around Tuesday, I got a nagging feeling in my stomach. There was something not right about my story. By Wednesday, it was quite clear: my story only presented one side of the issue. Only USFFA picketers and supportive students were quoted. There was no representation from the administration, nor any dissenting faculty or student voices. Oh. Shit.

Sure enough, Thursday morning, after the paper had been on the newsstands no more than 12 hours, Fr. Stephen Privett, USF president, sent the Foghorn an extremely angry e-mail. I'll quote for you some of Privett's more stinging insults:

  • "The article is a classic case of 'Fox' journalism where one and only one perspective is passed it off as 'news.'"
  • "How can anyone with a brain think that the University 'has run economic surpluses of $40 million a year for the last three years?'"
  • "Had your reporter taken the time to at least review my convocation address, she might have had a clue about the University’s overall financial situation."
  • "The Foghorn’s passing off such a one-sided, partisan discussion of a very complex situation as a 'new' article is inexcusable."

Etc. etc.


I definitely regret not spending more time gathering interviews to create a balanced article. It's true that the article was "biased." Not in the sense that I included my own opinions in the piece, but in the sense that I only interviewed people on one side of the issue. Was this based on my own feelings about the faculty contract negotiations? Hardly! It was simply a matter of a busy student journalist trying to do too much in too little time.

I realize now that when one has the great responsibility of covering a story that actually MATTERS to a lot of people, a reporter has to be extremely fair to each and every side -- and if I was too busy to cover the story responsibly, I should have held it for the next week's issue or asked for help from another reporter.

Though I think Fr. Privett's e-mail was a tad harsh, I definitely feel remorseful. Cheesy as it sounds, I learned a valuable lesson from this experience.

Please, read the story for yourself and tell me what you think. And this goes back to my last week's blog post: how do you go about defining bias? And is it always such a horrible thing? Anyway, things to ponder...


....J.Michael Robertson said...

Yeah, you should have put out the emails, put out the phone calls on Saturday or Sunday knowing that you had a tight deadline and that -- unless these folk were prompt or burners of the weekend oil -- you wouldn't get a response in time to get it in the paper. But then you could have said, "The administration has not yet responded to the Foghorn's request for a response. However, this story was written on a tight deadline, leaving only a small time window for such responses to make this week's paper. The Foghorn will gladly incorporate the administration's comments in any future story."

Or something.

I do NOT believe in sitting on the story waiting for comment because the Foghorn publishes weekly. This, by the way, is one advantage of having an Internet presence. You can end your print story by pointing at the Foghorn online, promising any responses would be incorporated there.

But back to the original problem. Always seek out additional sources even if they have only a few minutes to respond. Sometimes you will hold the story, but sometimes you will publish, making clear you tried to get comments and that comments will be incorporated in the medium's next news cycle.

The Foghorn was censured some years ago for the way it used a "fail to comment." Remind me and -- when my office is finally unpacked -- I'll try to find the original article and the details of the official hearing into the Foghorn's alleged misconduct!!!

caitlindee said...

Yikes. I guess this serves as a good opportunity to use the one-liner, "You learn from your mistakes," but ouch! I'm so sorry you received such a negative email, Laura; that's never a good feeling. And I know I've definitely done the same thing. I recently did a video story on Prop 8, and even though I specifically chose to cover the rally against the proposition (meaning the rally FOR gay marriage), I only got one quote from someone who actually opposed same-sex nuptials and it was a student. There's only so much I felt like I could do, though. I knew there weren't going to be any LGB haters at the event and since we live in an extremely liberal city, I considered myself lucky to find one person who was against gay marriage. I feel like I could've made a better effort to find someone-- maybe post something on Facebook or wait on a corner of a street and ask random people, but-- you do what you can, and with such a tight deadline, it's hard. And sometimes it's even harder finding that balance between biases. You'll know what to do next time. This is just a stepping stone.

Lauren said...

Well lesson learned here. It sucks when you feel like you did a really great job on a story, and then coming to find that one mistake created such a big stir. It's hard especially being a student journalist on deadline, and I definitely give you respect for taking on such a controversial topic. It's a learning experience, and now you know what to be more aware of for future stories. I feel bad that Privett took it there, but he was probably really offended. At least it wasn't like a newspaper that the whole world subscribes to you know? I read the article and I thought you did a really great job quoting and covering the picket, maybe just not so much the admins side.

Laura said...

One of my beat stories was also about the teacher's union. Like yours, my article was based mainly on the teacher's point of view. It is certainly a learning experience. I agree that its a bit difficult to try to get both sides of the story when you do have a deadline.