This is a lesson to journalists, aspiring journalists, and anyone who is a writer or wants to be a writer.
Research and balance are important, whether you're writing fiction or a news piece. If you want people to take you seriously, to believe you and trust you to tell them something important, you have to do the legwork.
A little news channel called WNEP in Woosic, Pennsylvania, put up this story, about how some parents are concerned that an English teacher who has served for more than 20 years happens to write erotica for Ellora's Cave under the pen name Judy Mays. Concerned citizens are "disgusted" and want the teacher to quit.
I am trying very, very hard not to be mean, to say what I really think about these particular small-minded witch hunters who apparently have nothing better to do. I am holding back all the things I really want to rant about, including the state of sexual freedoms in America, the personal lives of citizens, the devaluation of our educators, the hypocrisy of Western morality, and a bunch of other things that would likely make me sound smarter than I actually am.
Instead, I will focus on the gatekeeper to this piece of utter nonsense: the news media.
Having trained as a journalist, I know that small town media outlets struggle to fill inches and broadcast minutes. I know that reporters work on tight deadlines and can't always get the interviews they need to complete their piece. I know that, especially if you're young and just starting out, it can be intimidating to interview difficult subjects, especially those who are being attacked.
But none of those are valid excuses in the end. People are smart, and they will call bullshit on you if you leave out key pieces of information. And when you come off as blatantly one-sided in a story like this one, you become less than laughable. You become a sham.
The journalist in question, Kena Vernon, was more likely out of time rather than biased. The edits were a little sloppy, the script poor. There are huge leaps of logic with little supporting evidence, and no confirmations from the author in question. With little more than a few clips off YouTube to support the whole story, she should have killed it. In the end, the piece came off as petty, petulant and malicious as the women gathered in the opening shot. And yet, WNEP still ran the piece at its full 1:42.
The backlash has been both heartwarming and cringeworthy. As of the writing of this post, more than 3400 people joined the Support Judy Mays Facebook page since it started at 2pm EST today. WNEP has garnered more than 200 comments on the story--many of them nasty--and people have been calling the station to complain.
If anything good has come out of this, it's that Mays's sales have likely jumped this afternoon: in a tweet, Ellora's Cave was pleased by the support for her.
Here's the thing, and I should haven't to point it out, but I will: There's a person involved. And when you tell a story you think is full of conflict, sensation, something sexy and attention grabbing, the moment you decide to single out and pick on ONE person, you MUST stop and decide if you've been fair and balanced and given that person an opportunity to rebut.
I know it might have been a rough day. No one would return your phone calls and you had two other pieces to finish editing. I know it was probably just a fluff piece to you anyhow, and dammit, those minutes needed filling!
Yeah, life as a broadcast journalist sucks. It's why I never became an actual journalist. But good reporters must hold themselves to a higher standard if they want to tell real, impactful stories. It is not enough to say you tried your best to get the story, but you'll have to go with what you've got. As Master Yoda so eloquently put it, "Do or do not. There is no try."
By only telling half a story, you subject all involved to hurt, ridicule, abuse--not just Judy, but all those parents who complained in the first place. You could be destroying many lives. And you will most certainly hurt your own career and tarnish your media outlet's reputation.
In the case of Judy Mays, WNEP made it very, very personal to a lot of people--writers, readers, publishers, editors, parents, students, coworkers...a lot of people.
Perhaps there are those at Local TV LLC who are smugly sitting back at the number of hits they're getting on their website. Bad publicity is better than no publicity, right? Those ad dollars have to come from somewhere. But just as bad writing will cull your readership, poor reporting will decimate your news-watching viewer ship.
Perhaps there are those who will say that people love these stories regardless--celebrities, scandals, car wrecks: we're all just cavemen waiting for the next bloodbath, and it's their mandate to "infotain" us. Well, hey, I love going to the zoo, but there's only so much shit-flinging and masturbation I'll put up with at the monkey cage.
So journalists and writers take note: research, balance and more importantly, decide whether or not you're actually telling an important story...or if you're just flinging poo.
Leave a comment and I'll randomly pick a winner for any one of Judy Mays's Ellora's Cave eBooks! Draw will take place May 2, 2011, 9 p.m. EST.