Monday, July 13, 2009

Just doing my job? What journalism profs don't tell you.

Well, as a result of a little too much Stampede-ing last night I ended up being late for work.  However, platinum seats for the Chuckwagons and Grandstand Show were worth it.  Thankfully people in my office know that I will make up the hours when our other reporter goes on vacation. 

I walked in this morning thinking it was going to be a great day. I had a photo session booked with a restaurant owner whom I'd interviewed Friday.  The restaurant is under new management and the menu has completely changed (the story) and as I was doing the interview, I was getting hungry.  The food is reasonably priced and sounds AMAZING.  I came away from the interview feeling good about it.

Apparently the manager/owner did not feel good about it.  I walked into work today to find that the story has been wrenched from my fingers with the explanation that the owners were a little uncomfortable with a question that had been asked, and the fact that I didn't want them to read my story before we published it.

The question I asked? "How do the previous owners feel about the changes?" The answer was that they were happy with the shift in management and were simply moving on while the new owners took over.  The previous owners in fact were friends of the new ones and that relationship was all good. No controversy there.  Fabulous. I thought I made it clear that I understood, but do recall that the interviewee was a little defensive.  I explained myself completely however.

Then came the request to read my story before it had been published.  As far as I knew, we do not do this. Period.  I explained that I would call if I was unsure of anything and that I'd even read quotes back to check for accuracy.  Then I learned that the competing newspaper reporter in town let them read his story before publication.*  I was appalled but maintained what I thought was my "journalistic integrity."  When the interview ended, I again assured the owner that I wanted to write a positive story and that I'd for sure be back to the restaurant for a meal. We agreed to meet sometime today for a photo with her partner.

Fast forward to today.  I mentioned to my co-worker that I was going to finish the story today, and he hastily said we needed to chat about this.   He explained that he'd chatted with the owners who said they were uncomfortable with the interview, mainly because I'd asked about the previous owners and because I wouldn't send them a copy of my story for their perusal before publication.  I was also informed that they already felt uncomfortable with my editor/publisher because of a previous incident involving a letter to the editor that got edited. As it was put to me, I "ignited some discomfort that was already there" by asking a question. Oh, and you know that thing we never do?  Apparently, with community stories, we do let people read before publication. Also we don't typically ask "controversial" questions.

WHAT? Where was the lesson in our journalism classes about never letting people read your story before publication except when you do?  Also, where is the section in the handbook about questions you don't ask?  

I don't fault the system, the professors of ethics courses, or the people who write journalism handbooks.  I can't fault myself either for asking a question I thought readers might like to know.  For the record, I was going to phone the previous owners of the restaurant as well, because I wanted more than one source for my story.

I feel bad on a personal level that an interviewee was made to feel uncomfortable.

I also feel bad that my co-worker has to smooth things over and explain to them that... "She's new to this sort of thing, and doesn't realize that we actually throw journalistic integrity out the window and let people read our stories before they're published. Oh and that we don't ask questions that might possibly have a negative answer." 

I feel like a bumbling fool.  I also feel like I'm right. I'm not sorry for at least attempting to do my job.

As G.K. Chesterton once said, "Anything worth doing, is worth doing badly." Meaning: If we wait till we're perfect, we'll never get anything done.

*as for that other reporter and competing newspaper, keep an eye out for another blog post.


  1. I feel a profound empathy for your situation.
    Here at the (Publication name removed for libel) there is an unwritten rule that nothing can be published that makes (City name removed for libel) look in anyway not perfect.
    As business reporter I have been given a list of specific businesses that I am allowed to report on. These businesses buy lots of advertising.
    I am not allowed to report on any other business or the crumbling infrastructure.
    Since the City is one of the paper's main advertisers, under no circumstances can a story be published that puts the City in a negative light.
    I don't think that working at a community newspaper can even be construed as Journalism. My coworkers' previous professions include short-order cook and drugstore cashier.
    Your editor/coworker should have notified you of the previous conflict with your interviewee. These small town papers have a lot of history and it seems that many well-intentioned promising young journalists get chewed up and spit out just because the small town has an inflated sense of self worth.
    Great blog by the way.

  2. Ahh Jess, I'm sorry to hear this. More and more it seems like Journalism At School is full of idealism while Real World Journalism is soley "write what makes people happy/the newspaper money." For what it's worth, you don't sound like a bumbling fool to me in the least. You sound like a competent and interested journalist writing, as you said, what you think people would be interested in.

    Good on you!

  3. Yeah, that's what I'm finding at my paper(s) too. People want to read the stories beforehand, and if you call them to talk about something they're doing, they see it as "Tell me your side and I'll print it just like you tell me." Basically, it ends up being free advertising a lot of the time.
    They don't want you to ask tough questions because they don't know how to answer them. And if you do ask, then they want to see the story because they're afraid the answer they gave is going to make them look stupid.
    I wish they would have warned us about that in school. It's kind of turning me off the industry a little bit to be honest.


Let's talk. I love hearing what others have to say, even if we don't agree. Just be nice. Thanks!