You don't know the impact of a story, until you get it wrong
I woke up and like usual, rolled out of bed and checked my email. 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. This week would be different though. I would have no other choice than to read my story. Here's why.
As a 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 email 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 email 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. How could I mess up a story, I do this every week and never have screwed up before.
The next email in my inbox, expectantly, was from a 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 email read:
Hello My name is____________.
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 adressed 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 at 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 ever 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.
Making a job out of ruining people's lives
This is one thing journalists and police have in common. We ruin lives. Or at least we are told we do. Works out well considering they are my main source for all of my stories.
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 email:
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.
Did adding his name make a difference in the story?
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 to him. 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.
"If I had a dollar for every time someone told me [I ruined their life], I would be a rich man," my source for the story, Sgt. Huls of university police said.
One word can make all the difference
Mindy Granly works in the office of sustainability at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). She is the go-to source of the Statesman anytime we need to talk about UMD going green.
When I walked into her office it was my second time meeting with her. The first was the previous year to write a story about her new job at UMD helping with sustainability.
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 that was her talking 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 coluges weren't happy with her lack of acknowledging their hard work before she became a part of their team.
Because of this, Granly said she is now more careful about what she says in interviews. Readers and coworkers steadily call to her attention 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.
Granly 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.
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 Granly 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.
Obviously, my story is unfinished. I have 3 more interviews with sources telling me different ways that what I wrote affected them. My story is already long so I am deciding what additional interviews to use. This draft is a result of me sitting down and writing without stopping. I know it needs organization and work.