The 89th annual feast of San Gennaro is currently taking place in Little Italy. As a pseudo-Italian myself, I knew I wanted to at the very least make an appearance.
And because one of my grad school assignments involves weekly stories based off of New York City events, I decided to combine my two loves and write a story about the feast.
So on Thursday after class, my friend Leann and I headed downtown and spent two hours wandering the streets of Little Italy, talking to vendors and residents and, in Leann’s case, attracting the interest of all the eager Italian boys.
I spoke to 10 different people and gathered a hodgepodge of views on the festival as well as Little Italy itself. I thought it was going to be a great story, one that highlighted how gentrification had changed the culture of the once-tightknit community and even altered people’s perceptions of the feast. There was just one problem: the residents and vendors who spoke negatively of the area refused to give me their names.
I guess they were scared. I get that. And in my eagerness to write the story, I forgot one important rule: we can only quote anonymous sources under mitigating circumstances.
So I wrote my story and sent it to my professor.
It didn’t go over well. The story, it turned out, was a flop. Worse: there was no story, not without someone being willing to come forward and put their name to their words.
There’s something terribly discouraging about realizing that you’ve failed in your reporting. Not that I think there was anything more I could have done — I bartered with my sources, but both refused to give full names, and nobody else seemed willing to speak disparagingly of the event. But it’s still a disappointment to feel like you have a story at your fingertips and have to let it go.
But I understand why that’s what had to happen. It’s one of the basic rules of journalism: honesty and transparency. If I don’t let my readers know where my facts are coming from, how can they trust that I’m not just making them up?
Earlier this week, I spent a long time researching Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter who was fired in 2003 for fabricating quotes and stories. What he did was wrong not just because he failed his employers, but because he failed his readers. He presented as truth something that was, in fact, falsehood.
As journalists, all we have is the perception that our word is good, that it’s worth something. If we lose that, well … we have nothing.
So as hard as it was to let go of my story, I knew I had to do it. Not just because my professor told me to (although of course I do like to follow my teachers’ instructions, on account of them being smarter than me and all that), but because I don’t want to start my journalism career on unstable ground.
I want to be the kind of journalist that people trust.
I want to be someone sources have no fear entrusting their names to, knowing that I have great respect for the privilege they are affording me and that I will do everything in my power to protect them.
But I also want to be someone readers believe in, someone whose words matter. I want to be the kind of reporter who is so honest and open about where my information comes from that, if I ever do have to hide a source, people will know it’s for a good reason, and believe that what I say is truth.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m incredibly passionate about the role of journalism in society. I honestly think it’s one of those things that has to exist, because people need to be able to trust someone to tell them the truth no matter what. And I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize having that future.
It’s a bit of an ego-killer to not get a story published, especially after my first story turned out well. It feels like I’m slipping backwards instead of surging forward. But it made me realize I have to decide what I value more: getting published, or being trustworthy.
I think I’ll choose the latter.