Mixed up


The situations below are mixed up chronologically so you don’t know who did what to me. I’m not naming names. But please note: my name is on this. Life isn’t fair.

In the classroom, journalism professors exhorted students to consider the just-so balance between the public’s right to know and a person’s good name. When is it OK to rely on an anonymous source? Should the raped woman (or man) be named? Does a journalist warn a public figure that he or she is about to be exposed?

No one is exposed here — except me.

But it’s time. I want men in professional settings to know what they cannot do.

1) You cannot suggest that you would like to have sex with me;

2) You cannot kiss me;

3) You cannot enter my private room when I said, “Please do not enter now.”;

4) You cannot stroke my calf muscles while I stand next to your desk;

5) You cannot tell me that you love me;

6) You cannot say “If I was years younger, I’d be hanging out with you all the time.”

7) You cannot make off-color jokes about men and women in their underwear;

8) You cannot tell me privately, as my instructor, while I’m sitting in your health class, that women can have more orgasms than men;

9) You cannot force me to sit in on your lap in the office;

10) You cannot massage my shoulders in front of the entire newsroom;

11) You cannot talk about sex with me if I have not invited the topic;

12) You cannot take me out to dinner if I have not expressed the slightest desire to do so;

13) You cannot drive places with me in the car, groping my legs the whole time;

14) You cannot ask me to meet me after work and suggest monetary compensation to have sex;

15) You cannot ask to take my picture, asking me to pose by myself, at a conference, so you can have it for later;

16) You cannot meet me for coffee under the guise of wanting to talk about a potential internship, only to talk only about yourself, and later act like I don’t exist;

17) You cannot take advantage of the fact that I am, by default, a nice person. I have a hearing loss since birth that requires me to concentrate hard (lip-read) on what you are saying. It may come across that I am acting like you are the only person in the room, but really, even with my hearing aids, I am simply trying to hear you;

18) You cannot call me bad names in an attempt to control me;

19) You cannot ignore the fact the fact that I am married;

20) You cannot invite me, alone, to your mountain house;

21) You can not rape me.

All of these things have happened to me, from age 15 to 30, let the forces of the universe be my witnesses. Do I have it on tape? No. Is it my word against theirs? Yes. But I’m a journalist. I love facts. I treat them with utmost respect.

I know that until Power dynamics must change. Women will always have do NOT have to put up with “Hey, nice smile!” “Not only are you smart, you are beautiful!” “You look good today in that outfit.” “Nice story – did anyone ever tell you how beautiful you are?” That’s NOT fine. I don’t want men (and women) to read this and think I have to be treated with kid gloves.

Throughout my career, I have forgiven. I have tried, against criticism, to be friends with some of these men in my career. I’m sure I have “led men on” out of pure terror. But the moment a mistake – in my book, one of these 21 things – is committed, then I’ve lost all trust.

I count among my professional and personal acquaintances men (and women) whose company I look forward to and enjoy. They treat me with respect. They have not done any of the 21 things.

Women, how will we support each other if not now? If not now, when?

Men, next time, I’m dropping names.

UPDATE 10/16/2013 at 5:16 PM: A fellow female science writer rightfully said that not even comments should be tolerated. I’ve updated this post to reflect that.

My journalism mistakes: Please, read all about them

Humans make mistakes every day. In some professions, errors can be shrugged off as costly mistakes. “Geez, it looks like we’ve installed the processor incorrectly on the last 50,000 widgets. Need a re-do.” Nurses, doctors and others in the healthcare know much higher stakes: the tiniest missteps can put a life on the line. Hence, the humble checklist, so beloved by aviators, helps prevent an untold number of  disasters. Journalists have an equivalent tool: it’s called fact-checking.

For good reason, the ghosts of lying journalists past haunted my undergraduate journalism education. Their names were spoken in a hushed tone. Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, Rick Bragg. The Jayson Blair scandal at The New York Times erupted at the end of my sophomore year. (Unfortunately, there’s a long list of offenders – updated through 2007 only – compiled by the Freedom Forum.)    I personally think Mike Daisey should bear a scarlet letter, thespian or not. A life-or-death threat rarely looms above a journalist as she tweaks here, borrows a bit from there, and slaps in some fiction for good measure. So another conscious-rattling consequence should be clear for journalists who plagiarize and fictionalize: a swift and total exile from non-fiction forever. No question. No meaningless mea culpas. Night has fallen for the moment on a particular journalism foundation in my eyes. I appreciate their response to the situation.

So I mean what I say in my tweet:

When all of the Jonah Lehrer (#infoneeds) controversy erupted on Twitter yesterday, I rolled my eyes and kept on with work. Why give even more attention to someone (and possibly an organization) that is clearly trying a shock technique to get attention? (I regret that the Knight Foundation didn’t think through the scenario of not only giving Lehrer a platform, but paying him $20,000 speak.) But as I read posts and heard thoughts from my fellow science writers today, I realized I needed to add my voice to the crowd.

Every single factual error I’ve made in my journalism career (I started as a Georgia Press Association intern at rural newspaper in 1999) has been seared into my memory. I carry them with me and I relive them as lessons in miniature. But I am proud of the small proportion of mistakes out of what has been hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. I have written, with some breaks in between, for college newspapers, local newspapers, one local magazine, science publications and two dailies: The Statesville Record & Landmark and The Marietta Daily Journal for nearly 14 years.

As a journalist, I ask my sources tough questions. It is common sense to be completely transparent. A good journalist must be honest almost to a fault. That is very, very difficult to do. Smooth-talkers like Lehrer tear off another piece of the already much-battered public trust when they write fabricated stories, lie or simply don’t fact check. I refuse to be grouped into the “untrustworthy media.”

I’m sure I have made mistakes that no one ever alerted the publication to. Below are the ones I remember. I wish I could link to all of the articles, but some were published before online archiving began in earnest. Please, read all about them. I will do my best as a writer for “the public’s right to know” to avoid adding to the list.

1. Name misspellings (1999-2000)
2. A chart that incorrectly conveyed information (2001)
3. My story reported the opposite result of a vote at a city council meeting (2006)
4. When writing about high school test scores, I reported the inaccurate number of students who failed the test (2006)
5. Incorrect translation of percentages (2012)
6. The wrong amino acid sequence (2012)
7. Incorrect word use and wrong units of measurement (2012)

Generalists and specialists can coexist

The University of Toronto began an interesting journalism school experiment this year: They recruited students already specialized in a field, and then began teaching them a few journalism skills. This and ascendance of New York Times statistician Nate Silver has caused renewed anguish for aspiring reporters who still attend J-school: to specialize or not?

Seven years ago when I graduated from college with a degree in “Newspapers,” — a specialized degree if there ever was one — the expected path for journalists went something like this: Get an entry-level, general-assignment reporting job at a good daily newspaper. Work hard. Climb the ranks, reach for the bigger stories and move on to jobs at bigger dailies. Soon, your blood, sweat and tears will be rewarded by an editor’s decision to give you ownership of a beat. Editors will assign fewer daily stories. Your sole existence as a newspaper reporter will be  to cover your beat. Establish deep connections in the community. And finally: Break stories related to your beat first. So while many journalists began as generalists, they had a good chance of becoming specialists.

The many reasons the above model is antiquated is beyond the scope of this post. But I relate that story to remind readers how quickly the generalist-to-specialist route in journalism has been upended. Nate Silver of the 2012 U.S. election fame has taken the upended model and thrown it clear out the window. And I’m glad he did, for some reasons. He pushed past the “he-said-she-said” reporting model and gave us nearly un-subjective information.

My hunch is that after all of this specialization talk has settled down, there will again be a demand for generalist writers–either at a paper publication or at an online site. Specialists will stay around, too.

What is sterling example of how professionals with broad knowledge in many areas and acute knowledge in one or two fields coexist? Doctors. Freshly minted medical students who pursue primary care medicine are brave, in extreme demand and draw lower salaries, on average, than their specialized counterparts. We of course appreciate the anesthesiologist who visits us before surgery. But in our day-to-day affairs, we are comforted by a family doctor who knows a little about a lot and can help steer us in the right direction.

Likewise, I admired Nate Silver’s brilliant way of using data to move past the surface talk. But I’ve frankly found little use for his further blog posts. They come across as a list of facts of information. Now I want to read political stories from a writer who casts a wide net to interview multiple sources, does rigorous research into not only statistics, but also history, previous news coverage and social sciences.

The writer who, specialized or not, tells me a story — as some online writers like Nate, in my opinion, do not — is the one who I will follow regularly, online or on paper. I will check in on Nate and others when I need specific information. But to keep the news media ecosystem thriving, we need generalists and specialists. Just like Nature.

Finally, to be clear, a journalist doesn’t need J-school to become a good storyteller. However, whether someone aspires to be an online writer on one subjects or many, it is still good to know a few simple rules about journalism.