“And I can’t get it out of my head
No, I can’t get it out of my head
Now my old world is gone for dead
‘Cause I can’t get it out of my head.”– Jeff Lynne
In my last piece, I teased a story. In the media business they always tell you to make good on your teasers or you will lose your audience. Naturally, I don’t know if I even have one to speak of, but since this is a slow news day on my end, I figured I would tell a little story about why I am always so reticent about dishing details on other people’s legal problems.
In college, I wrote columns for the college newspaper. I know you are all shocked to hear that. One semester I served as the Opinion Editor. That meant that I supervised the columnists, designed the page four days a week, and usually wrote the staff editorial each day. I also filled in for columnists that flaked out. So, I was doing a ton of writing.
We also had daily staff meetings where we discussed how we would cover important stories. One day, a student in my dorm was accused of sexual assault. He was arrested by the local police. We debated whether to publish his picture in our college newspaper. TCU is a relatively small campus with approximately 7000 undergraduates. At the time, it may have been even smaller.
I argued that we shouldn’t. He had only been arrested and had not been charged yet. In terms of journalistic rules we were within our rights to do it, but I argued something I’ve definitely learned the hard way. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something. Well, as you might predict, this story turned out to end badly for all involved.
The first domino to drop came from the accuser. She told the police that she made up the whole thing. Of course, no one is really quite sure the ins and outs of that particular situation. Sometimes victims feel pressured to recant their stories or they are simply unwilling to go through the painful process of a trial. Sometimes women do make up stories. It is impossible to know the real truth more than 20 years later.
The second domino came when someone brought in a yearbook from a prior year. It seems that the would be perpetrator had an identical twin that also was on campus. Keep in mind how small our campus was. In the end, both students ended up transferring to a different school. Whether the first twin was guilty or not, the second didn’t deserve that.
I suppose we could hang our hat on the fact that we were well within our rights to tell the story and print his picture. We didn’t misreport the facts. He was arrested for sexual assault. Yet, he was never charged with a crime and the only witness (the victim) recanted. It was a horrible situation for all involved and it could have been avoided if we had just used a little discretion.
I was already on the path to becoming a teacher by then, but any taste I may have had for entering into journalism was driven out. We had those fights frequently that semester. Each time I was told I just didn’t understand. I wasn’t a journalism major. Each time I was proven right. The question of what you should do is always more pertinent than the question concerning what you can do.
I learned a few additional lessons that semester and through that particular experience. Despite our choice to do the wrong thing, I never questioned anyone’s integrity. We wanted to get the story right. The story we ran with was factually correct. However, it was missing context because we were in a rush to report what we had.
There’s often talk about the obvious bias in journalism. Journalists are obviously a bunch of liberals and their stories are slanted to the left. There is bias in journalism, but that’s not it. Obviously, their are rogue journalists just like their are bad teachers, doctors, and cops. However, the vast majority want to get the story right. At least, the journalists that work in mainstream media want to get it right.
They also want to be first. They want to have the scoop. In an effort to be first and to have the scoop we often miss details and context. 24 hours news could have made that better, but instead we just amplify what’s already there. So, what you view and what you read may be factually true, but it may also be missing context. It often is missing context because while journalists want to get it right, propagandists aren’t bound by the same credo. Lying is such a dirty word and such a complicated thing. I can lie by simply telling you something that isn’t true or I can lie by omitting something that is true. Either way, you’re aren’t getting the full story.
So, I learned a few valuable lessons through that experience. The main one I learned is that our system of innocent until proven guilty isn’t just a catchy slogan. It’s the real deal. So, I should always be very careful how I phrase things. More importantly, when you rush to judgement you end up getting details wrong. It’s not purposeful. Yet, it hurts real people just the same. I don’t know what ever became of those brothers, but I can’t help but empathize with them for something one definitely didn’t do and for something one may or may not have done.