Good journalism comes at a price

It’s not often a student lectures a cop and gets away with it. But there I was, standing on the corner of Aberdeen and Johnson streets the night of the infamous “Queen’s homecoming riot” last September, pontificating on proper police conduct.

Me: What’s in your unmarked cube van?

Policeman 1: Riot gear. Tear gas, shields, batons, pepper spray …

Me: [Starts scribbling furiously on notepad]

Policeman 1: We’re good and ready for any hostile situation.

Policeman 2: [Saunters over] Would you get any taller if we pulled your leg?

Recognizing a need for damage control, Policeman 2 assured me the van was simply a coffee station for the 100-plus cops in the Ghetto that night.

Me: [loud, incredulous] It doesn’t matter if I’m a student or a journalist! Don’t you recognize that lying to me only serves to do exactly what your police commander told me he was trying to avoid: the creation a ‘students versus police’ mentality?

The exchange didn’t make it to print in the following Tuesday’s Journal. It wasn’t that I neglected to include the anecdote. I purposely left it out.

As a student who experienced Aberdeen first hand, I undoubtedly held strong opinions about the vulgar escalation of violence that occurred that night. But as a journalist, it was my duty to keep personal bias out of the story—to avoid editorializing on a situation that drew fire, both literally and figuratively.

During my past three years working for the Journal, finishing my stint as 2005-06 news editor with this signed editorial, I strived to keep my text clean, provide multiple perspectives on the issues and above all, serve students by pursuing a fair story.

Just last weekend, I found myself uttering similar sentiments to an outgoing student leader (whom I deeply respect) about why I would be reporting on a topic that was sensitive to her: “It’s not my job to judge, it’s my job to report the facts.”

This isn’t an unusual circumstance for a journalist to encounter. In January, when I interviewed Rex Smith, editor of the Albany Times Union—the newspaper that cracked open the ethics inquiry into Principal Hitchcock—I learned he’d felt discomfort having to report on someone he considers “visionary.” His words give me strength.

“I’ve never become accustomed to the way journalism sometimes requires its practitioners to abandon friendship and personal belief in the pursuit of a fair story. The two great tenets of the craft are, first, to seek the truth and report it fully, and, second, to act independently. That latter point makes it hard sometimes to keep friends.”

With every touchy subject I’ve reported on, I’ve walked (and often dreamed about) the fine line between being sensitive and hard-hitting. And although at times I’ve faced gut-wrenching episodes of questioning, I’ve been privileged to be supported by fellow Journal editors and writers the entire way.

Journalism is about telling truth to power, so I’ve heard, and it’s about being bold and being brave. But sometimes, as the wisest woman ever to grace the Journal recently told me, it’s about following your gut.

So I leave you with these words, that I won’t claim as my own: Speak up for what you believe. And remember—silence gives consent.

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