A corner of the Indy office is emptier today. Our two interns, Maggie Smith and Jason Y. Lee, have left, their apprenticeship finished. There was something comforting about seeing them encamped nearby, laptops open, phones couched in the crook of their neck. We miss them already.
Indy interns are subjected to the same rigors and expectations as regular staffers—not fluffy routines of opening mail and making coffee. In return, they get a world of real-life experience, an impressive cache of clips and, if they're old enough, a bottle from the beer cart that occasionally makes the rounds late on a Friday afternoon.
I don't give interns unsolicited career advice, but if they ask, this is what I tell them:
1) Don't get too caught up in what your friends are doing. Set your own goals and expectations—and certainly don't sell yourself short—but don't allow peer pressure to dictate how you live.
2) Before becoming a journalist, take a series of shitty, low-wage jobs that will pay you just enough to cover your bills. Not only will this prepare you for a journalist's salary, but you will learn empathy and humility. The experience will make you a better journalist. Plus, you will never think any job is beneath you. I paid my dues as a school crossing guard, maid (got fired after one day), cake decorator, assistant manager at Subway, McDonald's cashier, musical instrument salesperson, newspaper delivery driver, donut delivery driver (not at the same time, but that would've been handy), record store clerk, video store clerk, nightclub booking agent, band manager, shelver in a college textbook warehouse and a telemarketer at a greeting card company—all between the ages of 21 and 29.
3) In addition to your low-wage job, live as The New York Times' David Carr calls it, a "fully textured life." That doesn't mean you should become a crackhead. But you should take at least one cross-country trip by car and visit a nation where indoor plumbing is not a given.
4) Read a lot of books.
5) Talk to people you don't know.
6) Fail at something, especially if you've come from a hard-charging, high-octane family that put a premium on achievement. You'll find that despite your shortcomings, you're still a decent, valuable person.
So, Jason and Maggie, good night and good luck.
When people hear about an egregious ethical breach at a newspaper, magazine or other media outlet, they usually wonder, "How did that get past an editor?"
Granted, sometimes the editor is asleep at the wheel. But occasionally, despite the editor's best efforts, a false, fictionalized or otherwise erroneous story is published because the reporter is very devious, even pathologically so.
Seven or eight years ago, when I was editor of the San Antonio Current, a freelancer pitched a story about graduation rates at a local public high school (another bedeviling education story, dammit). Supposedly the high school was overstating its numbers and far fewer kids were graduating than it had been publicly reporting.
First, a word about this freelancer (whose name I have also forgotten—I, of eternal sunshine of the spotless mind): She was ostensibly a Ph.D. candidate at a top university, an accomplishment that should have exposed her to the standards and rigors of academic integrity similar to those of journalism. With those bona fides, I should rest easy, yes? Lesson No. 1: Never rest, let alone rest easy.
I told her to investigate the rumor and debrief me. Weeks later I received a draft of the story, which at the time I thought I dutifully prosecuted: "How do you know this?" "What documentation do you have?" "What's your attribution for this statement?" "How many times did you call this person?" And on and on.
My instinct told me something was amiss, but she had an authoritative, reasonable answer to each question. Although she said the school had declined to comment and provide their own numbers, her data and supporting information had come from other sources inside the school with deep knowledge of the situation.
So, and my heart sinks as I write this because I know now where and why I erred, we published the story. As it turns out, we did get one thing right: The name of the school. The rest of it was bullshit: the data, the conclusions, etc. The school called me, rightfully outraged, and I told the officials I would look into their claims and, if true, try to unravel what happened. In my forensics on the story, I learned several deeply troubling facts—and I relate them here to the best of my memory:
Other than "The building's on fire," there are few statements that command my attention more than "I have an ethical question for you." At this point, I step away from my computer, exhale and yearn for the days of yore when editors were expected to keep full flasks in their desk. (Should those days return, fill mine with Macallan.)
Pull up a chair, whippersnappers, and I'll tell you an ethical horror story, or in airplane parlance, what is also known as a near-miss:
When I was the editor of the San Antonio Current, two freelance writers pitched an investigative story about Edison Schools, a for-profit company that is often hired to operate low-performing public schools. The byline was to be shared (Full disclosure: I cannot remember the authors' names, probably because I have blotted them out of my consciousness).
When I received the final draft, I began factchecking, and lo and behold, the FIRST 17 PARAGRAPHS OF THE STORY WERE PLAGIARIZED. Yep, lifted directly in order from a newsletter published by a California educational advocacy group. After my nausea subsided, I notified both writers, neither of whom accepted responsibility, that the story would not run—and why—and that they were d-e-a-d to me. The story did not get in the paper, but had I taken a shortcut that day and not spot-checked the piece, well, I don't want to think about it.
How do ethical breaches happen? Sometimes it's naivete or ignorance—I have another story exemplifying this that I'll save for a subsequent post. But other times the motivations are more pernicious: laziness, arrogance, carelessness and willful disregard for all that is good.