Before I could think twice, the lie was out there, and I knew exactly why I told it.
I had been on the phone with my mom, rehashing the first weeks of journalism boot camp at the Poynter Institute, and we were talking about a story I wrote. It was called “Same God, different prayer book,” and it was about the challenge of fostering unity among Christian denominations.
My mom wanted to know what the story’s central character, a Presbyterian pastor named Bobby Musengwa, thought of the finished piece. Musengwa was a community leader who valued church unity but struggled to promote it, and I featured him prominently.
“I haven’t heard back from him yet,” I said.
What I failed to mention was that there was a good reason I hadn’t heard back. I never sent Musengwa the story.
Reporters have a few guidelines regarding sources. No. 1: No surprises. Although Musengwa and I spoke extensively, I never made clear how I planned to use his voice in the story. I never told him he was the central character. A modest man, he would have been surprised, I think, to find himself in the spotlight.
Tucking my tail between my legs, I knew that though the rest of the story was well done, I had nonetheless committed a journalistic sin. Sincerity? Transparency? They each appeared dimmer than usual in my rearview mirror, and now that the story was published, it was easier for me to avoid looking back.
Musengwa, however, wasn’t the only source I avoided. For three of my four stories this summer, I never followed up to see what the people in them thought.
Surprising Musengwa wasn’t my deepest worry.
Consider the sources I evaded. There was Musengwa, a black South African pastor. Then there were the teachers at Lakewood High School (all African-American) and their students (mostly working-class minorities). And then there was Bill Harris, a white 70-year-old fisherman who never got past the seventh grade.
Now, consider me. I’m a white, upper-middle class erudite Jew born into New York City suburbia. Where do I intersect with any of these people? I don’t. I’m the silent majority, the status quo. My life hasn’t had a single hardship. No twists. No turns. For 22 years, I feel like I’ve been on upper-crust cruise control.
So, how can I understand where Musengwa is coming from? How can I comprehend failing algebra at Lakewood High School? How can I know what it’s like to be Bill Harris? I can’t. And I don’t know if I trust myself to do their stories justice. Who am I to filter out what it means to be them?
Reporters have one hard-line rule regarding the work we do: Get it right. Without that pillar, there is no trust, no truth, no journalism. If I send “Same God, different prayer book” to Musengwa, I give him the ammunition to tell me where I got it wrong. Why arm critics? If I’m wrong, I almost don’t want to know.
Of course, evading criticism does me no good. The one source I did follow up with was Lynn Carol Henderson, a white middle-class Ivy League-educated artist who was raised Jewish in Baltimore. Henderson was interesting, but I didn’t learn nearly as much from her as I did from Musengwa and Harris.
And really, just because we’re both East Coast Jews, does that mean I can understand Henderson any better than I can a man who grew up in apartheid South Africa?
Journalism ceases to be vital the moment we’re not learning. By design, it’s a profession that tries to help us understand. That’s why getting it right matters. When we get it wrong, we alter understanding. We determine social reality, and that is a scary responsibility.
The allure of opening a newspaper or logging onto the Internet is the discovery of something you didn’t know before. But what we know is limited by what we understand, and what we understand is limited by what we know.
I can’t expect to fully understand the lives of everyone I meet as a reporter; there are too many differences to cross. But difference is a good thing. It keeps us curious.
At its heart, journalism doesn’t promise enlightenment. It promises increments of understanding. I’ve spent so much time on cruise control that when it kicks out on me, I flail in panic for the gas pedal as I decelerate. With no time to think, it’s a reaction of instinct. I can still hear myself saying I haven’t heard back from him yet.
All things considered, I wasn’t going to send Musengwa the story, but when an editor encouraged me to hand him a copy and ask what he thought, I knew it was the right thing to do.
I left Poynter reluctantly, cranking the radio on the drive over to Musengwa’s church. As I mulled the idea of coming clean, though, I realized how much I needed closure. I wanted to put that story in his hands.
Musengwa, however, wasn’t there. He was on vacation, and the peace of mind I suddenly wanted was denied.
So, I left Musengwa a note and my e-mail address. Again, I am waiting to hear back. Only this time, it’s the truth. Read more