I woke up, and like usual, rolled out of bed and checked my e-mail. I slept in late that Wednesday. Late enough that the current issue of the Statesman had already reached news stands.
I’ll admit, I’ve become comfortable enough with the task of writing the crime section that I usually don’t even read my own story once printed. There are two reasons for this. One, I don’t like to see any typos or stupid Stylebook errors I missed. Two, it is weird seeing what I wrote in print. I can’t explain it. It’s just weird, and I don’t like it. This week would be different though. I would have no other choice than to read my story. Here’s why.
As I scrolled through what seemed like an endless amount of new messages I had received since around midnight the night before, I came across one from the Statesman Office Supervisor Jessi Eaton. The subject line read, “watch out…” Right away, before even reading the email, I knew I messed up.
The e-mail read:
...the girls involved in the roommate-punch-in-the-face incident were just here looking for you, all pissed off.
I told them to email you and get together if they want to talk about it, but I wanted to give you the heads up. If you do meet with them, have Dave be there.
My stomach dropped, and I immediately became really nervous. The smiley face at the end of the e-mail seemed ironic considering I was feeling quite the contrary. How did I screw up this story? I had no idea. But I did, and now I had to deal with it.
The next e-mail in my inbox, expectantly, was from a University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) username unfamiliar to me. The subject read, “Concerning the article ‘Girl Punches Roommate in Face.’” Great. Here goes nothing. I opened the email and nothing could prepare me for the personal attacks I was about to read. She wasn’t just mad about the story; it was clear that she was mad at me.
The e-mail read:
I am a roommate of the two girls you chose to write this article about. I was also the sober friend of the girl who "called the other roommate to let her in" where is where your first fact is wrong since I was calling her and I called her around ten times. Our roommate didn't let us in and that's why my other roommate got angry at her. After a while the Roommate who had borrowed the other roommates keys, earlier that night, came and let us in. This is where I told her to run back to our room so that nothing would happen since she had only been home for an hour and wasn't sober yet. But she didn't go back to our room and my other roommate kept yelling. This is when the girl who locked us in to the apartment tries to choke my other roommate and then punches her in the face. So the girl you portrayed in the article as the victim is actually the attacker.
So as you might imagine when we heard of your article we were quite angry. You should at least get credible sources such as me since I was the only witness to this or the police who actually, as you would have seen if you would have done decent reporting, have the story as well.
Lastly you might want to pick a more credible source than Sean Huls whom we have never even met and probably heard this story as an elaboration from someone else.
I will expect a full apology in the next edition of the UMD Statesman addressed with no names but an apology all the same. One from you and one from this Sean Huls kid who you can tell to come to our apartment, since he knows us so well, and give us an apology for telling a story he had no rights to tell and knew absolutely nothing about.
I hope you take this into consideration for your future articles because otherwise your future as journalist will probably be short lived. Or maybe I am getting it wrong and journalism has no integrity anymore.
-B******* O******** (The real and credible witness you might have used)
Nothing makes you realize the importance of what you write, until you get it wrong. I definitely got it wrong. I felt horrible. Horrible because she attacked me personally and horrible because I made their life a little harder that day. It didn’t matter that most of her accusations were unjustified. For example, Sean Huls isn’t some “kid.” He is a sergeant for the university police. It didn’t matter though; I was wrong, not her. She had every right to be mad. I knew that. No one wants to get it right more than I do, but that doesn’t change that this time. I got it all wrong.
The Statesman printed a correction in the next issue. To me the mistake is done and over with. For the girls in my story the mistake lingers on. Not everyone who read the original story read the correction. Especially since it was buried in the middle of an ad page. People who read my story may still think that the victim was the suspect. That’s my fault.
My life moved on after the correction was printed. I never heard from any of the girls again. I can’t say I had a lasting effect on their life, although that is completely possible.
One thing is sure though, you never know the impact of what you write until you get it wrong.
My next step
This made me think about the ways in which what I write affects who I write about. The only way to find this out would be to go back to my sources, the people I had done wrong and talk to them. It’s kind of ironic to consider interviewing someone about how interviewing them and writing about them in the past has affected them. I was nervous and excited to find out whatever it was I was going to find out. Maybe I would find that what I write is meaningless to my sources. Maybe they didn’t even read what I wrote about them. Or maybe they did. And maybe what I wrote affected them in ways I couldn’t possibly understand without talking with them.
Making a career out of ruining people's lives
It was my first big story as a writer, a drug bust in one of the on-campus apartment buildings. A student was being charged with a felony for the ample amount of drugs and paraphernalia he had in his on-campus apartment. He didn’t like that I wrote about him or that I printed his name.
He wrote in an e-mail:
I have a few questions as to why you felt it was necessary to put my name into the small
school news paper. I am only eighteen and from this point on this article will be
associated with my name. … I would like to meet with you to discuss possible legal measures I will pursue against the University of Minnesota and yourself … Because of this article showing up in every background check I will not be able to apply for housing off campus, apply for student loans, or jobs. I am not a dangerous human being or an angry person, I am just confused as to how you can dislike me this much without even meeting me. I would really like to talk to you in some sort of capacity so you can know who I am, whether or not you print what I say.
He was right. What I wrote would have consequences in his life. Where he was wrong was that he did it to himself.
Maybe if the story didn’t run he would have an easier time finding a job, getting student loans and finding a place to stay. He probably would, actually. Honestly, that is not something I put any thought into before printing his name.
At the time I wrote the story I didn’t think twice about the effect printing his name would have on him. I figured I was just doing my job.
No, probably not.
By keeping his name out of the story was I being dishonest to my readers?
This is where things become blurry to me. I still to this day don’t know if I did the right thing. I do know however that in one way or another I impacted his life. I told everyone about one of the lowest times in his life. I told his classmates what he does when he leaves class. I even published a photo so when he walked down the hall people would be sure to recognize him.
His outlook on life appeared dim. Not because of the felony he was charged with, but because of what I wrote. I ruined his vision of what he saw his future being.
His threats to press charges never followed through, but his e-mail changed policy at the Statesman. We stopped printing names. Not because we felt bad for the people we wrote about, but because we needed to protect ourselves from possible lawsuits. Selfish, I know.
My editors at the Statesman thought the e-mail was funny. I didn’t. I felt really bad that I hurt someone’s feelings. I take everything personally, and it bothered me that he thought I was a bad person. It made me wonder if I was cut out for this business. I knew I had just started my career as a journalist and had a lot more criticism coming my way. He made me feel like I ruined his life, and I’m not sure if I’m OK with knowing that I did that to someone.
Two years later, I have learned from the experience. I have only printed one name since. However, I still feel bad when I write a story I know will make someone else feel the way I made him feel that day. I don’t want to ruin anyone else’s life.
One word can make all the difference
Mindy Granley works in the office of sustainability at UMD. She is the go-to source of the Statesman anytime we need to talk about UMD going green.
I sat down, and she pulled out a folded up version of the news story I had written.
“You wrote the first story ever about me,” she told me while looking it over. “I really liked it. Well done.”
The “well done” was followed by a big “but.” Of course. She liked the story but there was something wrong with it.
She said that she liked how I recognized what she was doing on campus to promote going green, but there was one part of the story that made her look bad.
“I said it, so it was fair game,” she said. “I just realized maybe I shouldn’t have told [you] that.”
She was talking in reference to a quote about how recycling on campus was poor, and she was going to help improve it. This was true, but it made people who worked on recycling in the past look bad.
“They were like ‘Hey! We have been working hard at this,’” she said. Her colleagues weren’t happy with her lack of acknowledging their hard work before she became a part of their team.
Because of this, Granly said that she is now more careful about what she says in interviews. Readers and coworkers steadily call to her attention to quotes from stories written that they don’t agree with.
“Absolutely I read every story written about me. I scroll through the papers and look for anything involving campus sustainability,” she said.
Granley recalled a time that she was misquoted by the Statesman, by one word.
“I said ‘the past years we have been working on sustainability,’ it was printed that I said ‘the past year,’” she said.
This may seem like a minor mistake. So the reporter forgot the ‘s’ on the end of ‘year,’ what’s the big deal?
“It made it look like I didn’t care about what was done before I was here,” she said.
People have been working on sustainability for the past 10 years, not just the year I had been here, she told me. Not to her surprise, co-workers brought it to her attention, and they weren’t happy.
A small mistake by a reporter caused Granley discomfort at work. She had to explain that she didn’t say what was inside what should be sacred quotations, all because the reporter got one word wrong. I too have gotten one word wrong.
In a story I wrote earlier this year, I misquoted Sgt. Sean Huls of university police. He was talking about a theory that is well known in law. It’s called the broken window theory. I wrote in my story the shattered glass theory.
I have no idea how I messed this up. In my notes I clearly wrote down broken window theory. I have no idea why I wrote shattered glass in my story. But I did, and it made Sgt. Huls look incompetent.
“It wasn’t a huge deal because most people reading wouldn’t know it was wrong. But to people within the police department and people working within law at UMD, they would catch the mistake and wonder what the heck I am talking about,” Huls said.
His coworkers gave him grief when they saw the mistake in the paper. He said that they made fun of him even though they knew it was my mistake.
Once again, the Statesman printed a correction in the next issue. Thanks to me, we could tally another typo or mistake in the correction column that week.
Funny unless it is you
I’ll be the first to admit it. I have the most read section in the paper, but not because I’m the best writer. I’m pretty sure the only reason why most students read the crime section is to make fun of what drunken students did over the weekend. It’s funny to make fun of someone for being a drunken idiot. I even laugh a lot while the cops are telling me the different cases.
Turns out the subjects of our laughter don’t find it as funny as we do, case and point, drunken peeing boy.
“The whole process of getting into trouble is embarrassing and overwhelming but there is a lot to learn from situations like this,” he said.
On a weekend night he drank too much and got an underage consumption ticket in one of the dorms on campus. After he received the ticket, he didn’t stop drinking. He actually carried on with drinking and ended up walking into a stranger’s dorm room and peeing all over their room. This of course led to another underage consumption ticket in the same night.
He said that he wasn’t mad about the article it just made him rethink the night. A night that, according to Sgt. Huls, he doesn’t remember.
“Reading your article made me regret that night quite a bit. It wasn't a good night that's for sure. It made me think about what I need to do to make sure I don't end up on the wrong side of the law again,” he said.
His mistakes left readers with a good laugh. His mistakes left him with a disorderly conduct ticket and two underage consumption tickets to go with it.
The end of the road
I hurt people’s feelings, make them look incompetent, embarrass them and piss them off. Not only that, but I use their embarrassments to further my career and to market myself to employers.
For the past two years I have developed a passion for writing news stories. I love telling someone’s story. After getting a few hate letters, I found myself questioning if it was the right fit for me. If my love for writing was enough to put up with feeling like crap when someone wrote to me attacking me personally, I decided it was. I also realized through this research that the emotion I evoke in readers is part of what I love about what I do. What I write matters, I know that and that’s cool.