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.