I get this. I have been publishing since I had my own newspaper when I was 10, The Juvenile Journal. So I understand the risk you take when you put your words out into the universe. You have to expect to get feedback, both positive and negative. Not every one loves you as much as your mother does. And not every one respects your words. The wish is that they do.
Journalists should be able to have a reasonable expectation that if they do a diligent job reporting and researching, writing and attempting to be accurate, fair, balanced and forthright, the reader/consumer/user of their content will respect it. But that is not always the case. Bloggers, consumers and readers can attack with a level of vitriol that seems as if it is aimed at the barbarians who pillaged the village, not the writer who misspelled the expert’s last name.
A person at one of my book signings for my new book, “Everyman News: The Changing American Front Page,” recently said she was terrified of making a mistake so she got out of journalism, even though we both had been trained at the same journalism school. I said anyone in any profession could have that kind of fear– a lawyer afraid he or she will say the wrong thing in court and hurt the client, not help. A dentist afraid he will damage a nerve, a doctor afraid he won’t diagnose a severe illness in time. Heck, even a teacher can be afraid he or she will give the wrong impression to a student on a topic and that impression will stick, false or not.
But you try anyway. You write the story, you try your absolute damndest to genuinely convey what it is like to be in a certain place at a certain moment, with access to this person, that event, those words, that news. And while you are doing the reporting and the typing or the recording on video or audio, you are attempting to tame if not silence the monster that is your ego in order to perfectly articulate a truth. Even a small truth, making careful notation of the color of the chair, the number of people on the parade float, the amount spent on the healthcare program.
I tell my students you start the process with a respect for the sancitity of your own byline. Not a worship of it, but a respect that what goes under your byline better be right. And it better be your best work. As much as I love to see my name on the spines of books or on scores of search pages on google, I also acknowledge the possible weight of having something assoicated with my byline that is inaccurate, a misrepresentation, a misstated truth.
I have made a few mistakes in my work in almost 30 professional years writing for newspapers, magazines, websites, books and radio. But they were mostly minor. My worst mistake was when I was a reporter for the Dallas Times Herald and in a feature I said a woman had a glass eye, when all she had was blindness in one eye. I had read a clip about her accident, observed that her one eye did not move with the other and had a flatness to it, unlike the sparkle in her other eye. So I thought I verified when I asked, “So tell me about the accident with your eye.” And she did, and I wrote it down. But I somehow thought that because she lost her sight, she had her eye replaced. It wasn’t intentional, it wasn’t malicious, but she sure made my editors know I was wrong. I was just plain stupid. And I never forgot how humbling it was and how completely ridiculous I felt.
I have this new book out, and the reviews are starting to come in. Mostly they are very positive, but a few have lines that sting.
I guess it’s because I have never spent more time on a single project than on this book. It was also intellectually and creatively my most challenging work– aside from parenting. But I also know that I did it, I wrote it and I put it out there. Sometimes I feel like writing and publishing is like wearing a huge target on your back. I tell students in my writing workshop that it is worth it to take that risk. That your voice matters, that what you have to say is worth the effort. That you put it out there and wait for the push back, if it comes at all.
And that you keep trying and keep writing and keep publishing because your byline is sacred.