The new community journalism rule: No mercy
After Watergate, journalists were seen as a a court of last resort for the desperate and downtrodden, and that’s what I saw growing up watching movies such as the somewhat fictionalized “All the President’s Men,” totally fictional but weirdly prescient “The China Syndrome” or totally ridiculous “Capricorn One.” Those are the kinds of images that formed my opinion of journalism and, in a way, my professional ideals, and it’s why I try to report responsibly and overcome the more recent, cynical view of the field.
As a community journalist, then, I struggle to play fair and always remember the “community” part: to be sensitive to how a story will play locally, respectful of the privacy of private citizens, protective of the ignorance of people new to being interviewed, attentive to the dignity of those who don’t photograph well and even willing to hold back on a story when told it carries some sort of risk.
But no longer, I think.
Ask me to wait on posting a story and I’ll probably say no.
What changed? You may find this funny — like that classic episode of “The Simpsons” in which a simple, honorable film crew comes to Springfield and finds itself ripped off and abused by its residents (then flee back to Hollywood “where people treat each other right”) — but this reporter is tired of being taken advantage of by the people he’s trying to report on.
Here’s how things actually work in journalism: When I walk down the street and see things, I’m free to report those things. When I ask people questions for a story and they answer me, I get to report that too, unless they tell me ahead of time not to or we have some other, similar agreement.
But sometimes people try to convince me otherwise, and in the past I’ve listened. Like April 3 in Porter Square, when I noticed the giant sign on Roach’s Sporting Goods telling me the store was going out of business, took a photo and went inside to find someone to ask about it. I found Charles Callanan, co-owner of the store, who asked me to hold off on a story because there was an active court case that could be somehow affected by too many people knowing the situation. Somehow. He told me to talk to his brother and other co-owner, Joe Callanan, and I did, feeling slightly stupid; not only were thousands of cars each day driving past the “Store closing — 30% off” sign, and not only did the store’s own website say it was closing, but I’d even found a blog writing about this all the way back to March 16. I mentioned all this when I e-mailed Joe Callanan on April 4 to ask for comment for a post I hoped to do in the next day or so.
“It is a sad turn of events for all,” Joe Callanan wrote me back. “I hope you will respect my wishes. An article at this time will not be in our best interest. Later I will be able to talk about it. And there is still time. Thank You for your concern and patience.”
I fell for this.
Imagine how I felt when I saw The Cambridge Chronicle’s piece on the store closing posted May 10.
It turns out I felt exactly as I’d felt when Zinneken’s waffle shop found its final location in Harvard Square, since founder Nhon Ma and I had been corresponding since November 2010 and he’d told me Feb. 19, 2011, that he had a spot pinned down — but (and you probably see where this is going) to hold off on saying so: “I haven’t signed the letter of intent yet, so it may be premature to release this info in the press. You’ll be the first one to release this information though (once LOI has been signed, matter of days),” he wrote to me.
That’s not what happened, though. Instead there was silence until the headline “Belgian Waffles to Sweeten Harvard Square” and all the savory details appeared April 14, 2011, in the Harvard Crimson.
When I reminded Ma that I was told I’d be “the first one” with the information, he explained: “I really wanted to wait to receive the approval for the common victualer license before making this information public … but the Crimson contacted me the day after [a] public hearing for a phone interview. I told myself that if the [Harvard Square Business Association] knows, then the Crimson knows too. I couldn’t refuse the interview because they have been following us since the beginning.”
Yes, but you actually could refuse. Or you could contact me afterward so I could post the information at the same time, because sometimes journalists care about things like that, silly as it may be.
And as to Charles Callanan’s excuse that he and his brother got a pass on his brother’s broken promise because they were distraught over their court case and closing their store: That works only up to the moment you talk to The Cambridge Chronicle for its story. Or to The Boston Globe for its May 3 piece. Or to CBS for the story it posted May 4.
These are not the first times this has happened to me, but they are likely to be the last. While my first reaction was to tell Nhon Ma and the Callanans to go straight to hell, which is where I’m told liars go, my slightly more reasonable reaction is to acknowledge that they’re only human — prone to forgetting the promises they make or casting them off when following through seems like too much work — but to ask myself: Given that, why should I take a chance?
The rules are the rules, and when business proprietors (and maybe even citizens) ask me in the future to break them, I will say no, tell them these stories and explain that journalism is my business just as sporting goods, waffles or widgets are theirs, and that my sense of “community” doesn’t extend to getting taken advantage of.
If your story rises to the level of “All the President’s Men,” we’ll see.