Open Thread Mondays: I Screw Up, Too

Every now and then, when I’m working on those longer complex stories none of you want to read, I really wish I had a venue to explain to people what’s going through my head. Many people view the news as a collection of objective, infallible facts cobbled together by some indifferent reporter. News is the Truth, and any deviation from it is the result of a reporter’s bias or agenda.

Here’s a little industry secret: 99.9 percent of the news you read is somewhere in the middle. Where we as reporters screw up is in our constant insistence that every story is a factual, accurate representation of reality. Our frequently repeated commitment to the Truth.

For anyone who’s ever been the subject of a story, you know exactly what the response to that is: bullshit.

I screw up stories. Reporters at the New York Times screw up stories. Your favorite journalists, bloggers, talking heads – they sure as hell screw up stories. So long as we’re writing about controversies and people who disagree with each other, someone’s going to say we’ve screwed up a story.

We reporters work under some heady pressure. We spend hours – sometimes days or weeks – gathering facts and quotes and context and background. We speak to a lot of people and read a lot of stuff. We take that information and we boil it down into whatever space limit we’re permitted (on a blog, it’s notably small). We shape it to fit a narrative that fits the voice, style, and format of where it’s being published. We ascribe a narrative so people will read past the first paragraph. And then we get in as much information as we can before our deadline rolls up on us.

When reporters screw up stories, in the vast majority of cases it’s not about the reporter’s bias or hidden agenda. It’s because one or more of the constraints forced us to run with what we had, and it wasn’t a picture perfect representation of the Truth, but it was the best we could do under the circumstances.

So, you may wonder why I’m telling you this. It’s because over the time I’ve been running Sheepshead Bites, I’ve heard a lot of griping from some of my sources about the “distortions” made by reporters at other media outlets. Some are justified – some I just feel bad for the journalist. People don’t realize how hard his job is and how little he’s paid.

I’ve also heard the same griping about my reporting – it’s biased, it didn’t include quotes from this, that, or the other thing. It omitted information or included too much information.

So, I’m writing this because I want people to understand a little bit of the behind-the-scenes of newsgathering. I’m writing this so that, when and if I write a story about you, you already have the disclaimer. I’m not God. I’m not omniscient. I’m just a strapped-for-time-and-money reporter with a commitment to do the best job I can and be as fair as I can under the circumstances.

That being said, the cool thing about blogging that I didn’t get when I worked in print journalism is the instant feedback and the rapid evolution. I put a story up and right away I start hearing about it. Mistakes can be corrected in real time. New points of views can be added in the comments section. You don’t need me to quote you – you can include your own quotes and provide additional background that puts it in context.

I’m not just a reporter anymore. I’m a moderator of a discussion we’re all having, and together we can get a much better representation of the Truth than any lone reporter ever could.

Thanks for reading. The comments are all yours…