The folly of youth

Before I start, I’ve got to warn you that if you haven’t watched the lecture for the Tuesday 10/19 class or actually been in the class then go and do that now. Besides the fact that it will be nice to have some frame of reference to understand what I’m talking about, it’s just a very informative and stunning lecture and I think the guest, Nick Sylvester, was very interesting.
One of the first things you learn in journalism school, before they teach about the inverted pyramid and how to craft a lede, is that you plagiarism, in an any form, is very likely to end your career. It’s a big thing that’s sort of crammed into your head and reiterated with stories by each successive teacher who’s had a student fall victim to it.
One of the most poignant things that Nick said, or at least something that got to me, was that he had a good idea and he just got in over his head. Journalists want to tell you a story. They want to find out something that no one else has ever done before and shout it to the hilltops (and ride the successive wave of fame into a book deal and descriptions that they’re the next Woodward). It’s the idea of journalism as the Watergate babies saw it. Now in the intervening years, the idea of breaking the next Watergate has somewhat diminished and in some ways, it informs everything we do.
I’m a journalist. I don’t mean that I’ve written for a student newspaper, not that they produce anything less than quality journalism, but though I’m still in school I’ve had articles published in very reputable papers. I’m also young, I haven’t yet reached 30 and I have a laundry list of mistakes in my life that I could point to and shake my head at. I tell you this not because I’m trying to give you a biography of my life, but because I want it to be understood that when I talk about this topic, I talk about of the frame of reference of having been in similar situations.
It’s amazing to have a good idea, but to have an editor think that you have a good idea is even better. But the problem with good ideas is that they sometimes end up not being the greatest stories. Sometimes you’ve got a wealth of information and the research and quotes are overflowing your notebooks. Sometimes you can get someone to tie something together neatly with a bow, and sometimes you can paint a picture that shows something to be unequivocally true.
The problem is sometimes you can’t. Sometimes the facts show something but you have no proof, only lukewarm assumptions. And this is where the fear comes in. If you don’t have what it takes, you can end up out of a job. And that’s where the thought hits…well can’t I just say that? In a humorous piece, you get a liberty that you don’t have in straight news. But it all comes down to facts. People want to know that what you’re reading is true.
When you’re under 30, with rent and other innumerable bills to pay, sometimes this happens. I don’t agree with fabrication in any way. I don’t think it’s a good thing. I don’t think it should ever be done. But I also don’t think that someone who’s got a bright career ahead of them, someone who can write and craft stories that make people want to read a newspaper should get thrown out on their butt for one mistake. When you’re young, you make mistakes. It is the folly of youth. It’s not something to destroy careers over.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe in a business that prides itself so much on objectivity and the search for truth, it’s a one-shot deal to success and failure. I don’t want people to demand any less of journalists; I just hope that people can keep in mind that we too are people.

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