A few more thoughts on hugs and habeas

Last week, as you may be aware, a bit of a Twitter tiff erupted between a St. Louis TV journalist and our very own Joy Mayer in the aftermath of Ryan Ferguson’s madcap release from prison last Tuesday.

The argument began with the observation by two people — one a former AP reporter and the other a Columbia radio show host — that maybe some reporters who had hugged Ryan Ferguson and his parents were #TooClose to the story. But the conversation took an entirely different turn, as Joy documented in a really terrific use of Storify (that you should read, if you haven’t already). It became a discussion of the facts of the case and the TV reporter’s insistence on repeating an error, even when several people pointed out to her that she was wrong.

Then, when things got too hot, she deleted her Tweets. Thank heavens for screen grab. Without it we wouldn’t be able to have the interesting conversation that has resulted from the exchange. (I hope I don’t have to tell you that deleting Tweets is not transparent and, therefore, not okay. Errors in Tweets should be acknowledged immediately and corrected ASAP. With apologies.)

First, about those hugs: When the Missourian covered the Ferguson trial in 2005, someone who was in the courtroom told me that our reporter had been seen to cry when the guilty verdict was returned against Ferguson. Same kind of thing, right? Maybe it’s even worse because it revealed to quite a few people in the courtroom that the Missourian reporter on the story seemed to have developed very strong feelings about the defendant’s culpability. That could have affected readers’ and sources’ perceptions about her and her ability to report fairly.

This hug is a little fuzzier because I don’t know who initiated it. Sometimes when people are jubilant, they’ll hug anyone, whether that person wants to participate or not. (Happened to me once: an MU professor who was very happy about a gift to the university grabbed me and kissed me on the lips. I was writing a story about the gift. Awkward.)

Here’s the thing: the Ferguson story and others like it divide communities (the “he didn’t do it” and the “I think he did” camps). In a smallish community like Columbia, it’s even more important that journalists covering hotly debated issues and topics maintain an impartial and inquisitive approach to the story. I pair those words because I think that the made-up mind is likely to close. And a good journalist can’t have a closed mind about a story.

So the good journalist does practice a kind of detachment, and that means sometimes backing away from emotional responses. This doesn’t mean you have to be a robot; it does means you have to control strong emotions that can impede clear thinking about facts (the inner voice crying out, “That can’t be right! That’s not possible!” because the facts are getting in the way of the story you thought you were writing, the one you wanted to write — or worse, promised to write).

You’ll see how this works when we watch a documentary about New York Times columnist  Nick Kristof after the Thanksgiving break. He talks about the detachment he feels from subjects enduring terrible suffering, and he admits he’s not proud of it. But it’s a balancing act between humanity and effectiveness as a journalist. You may have trouble with this idea at first, but sometimes a little less of the former is better for the latter. And then on other stories, the opposite is true. (Covering traumatic events requires a lot of humanity, I would argue, and is unlikely to create serious impediments to doing good journalism.)

I would not have hugged the Fergusons. A simple smile would have reflected back at them an appreciation of their joy.

But the hug thing isn’t quite on par with the problem of reporters, like the one in the back-and-forth with Joy, not giving a damn about the facts. There’s already far too much of this going around — assertion trumping truth. Just look at some of the comments on KBIA reporter Ryan Famuliner’s blog post about the Mayer-Moon dust-up. Famuliner did a terrific job summing up what happened and why it’s important. And still, some commenters want only to assert that Ryan Ferguson is innocent, so who cares about the rest?

We do. I said something long-winded about that in my comment:

The Ferguson story has been hard to get exactly right in the eight years since he was convicted because his attorneys have raised complex legal questions that require us to tap experts. Here’s the thing: We can’t be expected to know everything; we should be expected to find out what we need to know, based on each story. We knew weeks ahead of time that the appeals court decision would touch on complex issues. I don’t have a law degree, and I have been the editor on this story at the Missourian for long enough to know how terrifying it is to read legal language on deadline. So I drafted MU Law Professor Rod Uphoff to help us out (I owe him many beers). When the Appeal Court decision came out vacating Ferguson’s convictions, it took Uphoff — an expert on habeas — more than two hours to read the decision and interpret it for us. And it took a full six hours that day of back and forth to create an understandable explanation for our readers. We haggled over every word. Two things about this: It was exhausting. And it was nowhere near our most-read story that week (every other thing we wrote was far more popular with readers, including the story about the cat Kent Heitholt used to feed in the Trib parking lot). Lawyers read that explanatory piece and said we’d gotten it right and that they were impressed, but we couldn’t have done it without Rod. I think we move the credibility needle up a little every time we make the effort to be accurate, and that means we should make that effort every, single time. Good journalism is hard. Bad journalism — not so hard. But the good increases credibility, helps readers understand the world they live in and, I hope, is valuable to them. I am so happy that my colleague Joy Mayer and you found the time to tell the back story of what happened last week and why Ms. Moon’s actions were disturbing. Caring about the facts is, as far as I’m concerned, fundamental. Readers need to know who cares about the truth. Telling them is an act of transparency that improves the craft.

I hope you’ll read the Storify and Ryan Famuliner’s blog post and really think hard about this stuff. I’m guessing I know where you stand on getting it right. Where do you stand on hugs? I’ll give you one if you comment below. Just kidding. But I will give you a warm smile next time I see you.

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4 Responses to A few more thoughts on hugs and habeas

  1. arlxv8 says:

    As a former student, I do understand that a professional in this realm must remain detached to some degree; the nature of the job that calls for that. At the same time, there are people who have been reporters with the same sources for years. Naturally, you’re bound to become “buddies” with folks, and in a way, it helps you do your job better.

    I don’t think a hug in this instance (or any I can imagine for that matter) was right, but it’s likely that some sources will get a warmer greeting from you than others simply because you’ve known them longer. It also depends on some circumstance. I’d say it’s okay to wish someone a happy Thanksgiving when reporting on a story about the holiday, but to help them grieve (like this blog post discusses), probably not the best thing to do.

  2. emsgv9 says:

    I was in the room where the infamous hug occurred and I’m pretty sure I watched Melanie Moon hug Bill Ferguson, though I missed her hugging Ryan. Part of me can understand why she felt compelled to hug the two. The entire room was celebrating and hugging — it was happy chaos. It was tempting to put aside the oft-mentioned “journalism hat” for a moment and become a part of the family’s joy.

    But I felt it was inappropriate. Whether or not I believe Ryan Ferguson killed Kent Heitholt is irrelevant, especially when I know that my readers reside in both camps. If I were seen hugging any member of the family or their supporters it would appear as if I too thought Ferguson was innocent, which is contrary to the ideal of a press that does not take sides. From her tweets, its seems that Ms. Moon has forgotten that her opinion is not the one that matters.

    Hugs are not the antithesis of good journalism, however. In certain situations, they are okay and maybe even good. But I think many of these situations are ones that do not have two sides. There are not two sides to consider when writing a life story. Or when profiling someone who has lost their leg to diabetes. Covering a high-profile murder case is not one of these situations.

    We all know that journalists are not robots. But we still must be professionals who keep their readers, and their trust in us, at the front of their mind.

  3. Brian Hayes says:

    I think that journalists should refrain from hugging their sources or subjects whenever the story has potential for controversy. For example, if a journalist is writing an individual profile or life story that doesn’t instigate multiple opposing arguments, hugs can be appropriate. But that was not the case in this situation. Ryan Ferguson, though he may have had the support of the majority of the people in the room, does not have everybody on his side. Therefore, I agree with what has been said and I think it is completely irresponsible for a journalist to so clearly exhibit his or her stance. We have been taught repeatedly in the school of journalist that journalists must do all they can to not develop a bias that could compromise their objectivity, and they definitely shouldn’t be showing it. Furthermore, it sounds like there were plenty of Ferguson supporters present…why wouldn’t a journalist just leave all the emotions and celebrations to them?

  4. morg4nd says:

    I actually saw her hug Bill Ferguson, and I remember wondering if she was a family friend or another reporter. At first I thought there was no way she could be a reporter from the way she hugged Bill, but then I saw her asking to take a picture with Ryan, and by the way she asked, I could tell that she didn’t actually know him. While I stood on stage next to Bill and Ryan and his sister, it was hard not to get caught up into the moment and want to take part in their joy, but that was as far as it went for me. I had a feeling, and that was it. Like you said in your blog post a simply smile would do, and I personally think that the hug was inappropriate in this situation. As far as sparring with Joy on Twitter, I can’t understand how Ms. Moon could completely disregard the facts that Joy was throwing back in her face about the whole “is Ryan innocent” issue. During the past two and half years that I’ve been at Mizzou, the journalism professors have always made it clear that one of the main jobs of journalists nowadays is to sort out the truth for readers, especially in the age of Twitter when anyone can tweet “breaking news” and have it spread like wildfire wether it’s actually true or not. The fact that some journalists like Ms. Moon aren’t taking the time or effort to properly understand what’s right in front of them is saddening to me.

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