There I am in the newspaper again. This time, however, there were no surprises.
The authors or the article had called up to ask if they could come over and interview me a little over a month ago. Actually one of their dad’s called and asked. There was no school that day and Kim was out with the girls somewhere so I said sure.
They arrived, took off their shoes, and we quickly configured the dad’s computer so that the boys could print out the questions they wanted to ask me about podcasting. The two boys asked the questions while the dad took notes on his 12″ Apple laptop. Once they were satisfied with their answers they put their shoes back on, shook my hand, and left.
A few weeks later, the dad emailed me a draft of the article and asked me if it was ok. Wait a minute, you say, real journalists wouldn’t do that.
I’m not so sure. I used to call myself a real journalist and, when possible, I always sent my articles to the people I wrote about before publishing. I had editors here or there who didn’t like the practice. I wasn’t letting the people I was writing about dictate what would be said about them but I often benefited from additions or corrections that they suggested. If I got a piece of technology wrong or mis-described a detail of how a technology worked, I was grateful to get more information.
I never had someone tell me that they didn’t say something that I quoted them as saying. I had people ask for a chance to further explain what I quoted them as saying. Sometimes I was able to meet their needs and sometimes they were just trying to find a way to soften something they wish they had said a bit differently. In a dozen years of articles I’ve only twice had people ask that I not print a quote. In both cases the subjects were Apple employees and in both cases they admitted to saying exactly what I was quoting them as saying. In both cases, they were nice juicy quotes. What do you do when someone says, “look, I did say that and you can print it, but I’m going to get fired for that.”
For me, real life always wins. Real life in this case is a basically good guy who is going to get fired for saying something in the heat of the moment – something that is true but not something he should have said – something he said to help a customer with a problem that I happened to be present to hear. I’m ok not printing it. I’m glad I ran it past him.
Real journalists know that every step of the process is subjective. From deciding what story to cover to what angle to take when covering it to knowing where to begin and end the story to knowing what quotes to include – these are all subjective. You can hide behind the facts and say “but they really said this” or “it was said in a public forum I’m legally entitled to print this”. What is legal and what is right are two different matters.
The good news is that it’s not just third graders writing for the Boulevard Times who know this.
We were contacted a couple of weeks ago by Channel 3, an NBC affiliate. The sister of Elena’s first grade teacher passed on a message through the teacher to us that Channel three would be interested in doing a story about this blog and the sharing that many of you have done in your comments. I called the name I was given and talked to a very kind and thoughtful man who explained the angle he would like to see taken in the story and why he thought it would be helpful to other people. I talked to Kim and we agreed and were told that reporter Mike O’Mara would follow up with us the next day.
Mike called as we were heading out to meet my parents somewhere. We talked briefly about the story and what he wanted to accomplish. I told him that we did not want pictures of Elena shown on the television. He politely pushed a bit and asked why. In addition to the reasons I’ve given on the blog, I wouldn’t want people to be moved because she was a cute little girl with a ton of energy. If we wanted to, we could release the home movies we have of Elena which really show her personality. But, for me, a lot of the value of the blog has been that people have been able to communicate their own losses. I also don’t want to exploit Elena’s memory.
Mike thought for a moment. He said that he understood but that television is a visual medium. He thought he would get push back from his producers who would want a shot or two of Elena to help set up the story. I thanked him and told him to let us know. I told him that we didn’t much care whether or not this story was on t.v. but that we did feel strongly about pictures of Elena. Although I didn’t tell him, I’ve seen myself on t.v. – it’s not a pretty sight. I was happy to do the story if it would help other families but it wasn’t that important to me that I was willing to compromise on privacy issues.
He told me he’d get back to me. That night he called to say that he wouldn’t be coming over the next day to shoot the story. He’d talked to his producers and they had been convinced that the story would not be compelling enough without the pictures and so he’d told them there was no point in doing the story. I was so impressed. He wasn’t calling to pressure me or to see if I might have changed my mind. This was a courtesy call to let us know he’d heard our reservations about the story and respected our wishes.
After our dealings with the Sun newspapers, our faith in the media had certainly wavered. Not only had the Sun done the wrong thing in print, they had responded inadequately to people who had complained to them about their story.
We still get emails from people in the publishing business who read this blog. My sister has forwarded notes she’s gotten from editors she’s worked with. In addition, a professional photographer friend of mine answered an inquiry I made about whether or not the reprinting of the picture from Elena’s funeral program was legal, “Generally speaking, you can’t republish a photograph not taken by you unless you have permission from the photographer. […] Not only is this incredibly bad taste, it could be a copyright violation. This is not a legal opinion […], but it is the common guideline that we follow in the publishing business.”
Bad taste. The inability to see that real life and real people should always be foremost in your mind.
Mike O’Mara and a pair of third grade reporters for the Boulevard Times (not named because of their age) have shown us that there can be responsible journalists at all levels.