I think all journalists could benefit from a similar occasion—the day I considered suing one of my sons for libel.
His flair for writing had earned him a spot on the high school newspaper, for which he penned an article about being a young boy growing up in Amsterdam. He wrote about our travels around the city, and an occasion on which I’d tried to casually explain away a scantily dressed woman standing in one of the city’s famous red light district windows.
It was a great read, smart and funny. It just wasn’t true. I’d worked in offices right on the edge of the infamous anything-goes zone, but had studiously tried to shield the children from what was going on there when we were out and about.
It wasn’t always possible: for some reason the drug pedlars working in Amsterdam’s broad daylight thought someone with one child in hand, a second in a buggy, and a third in a back-carrier made them a prime customer. I was always very polite, very British, telling them, “No, thank you very much.”
At first I just laughed off the high school newspaper piece. But then I thought, did I really want staff and parents to think I was that irresponsible? I had a conversation with the author, explaining how passing off fiction as fact was problematic, and could prove very costly when attorneys got involved. Thankfully a follow-up article set the record straight, and good relations—and community standing—were restored.
But it gave me pause to realize that I rarely stopped to think about how the many, many people I had written about felt about the way in which they were portrayed. Not that I’d made things up about them, but did they consider they had been treated well? Had they been needled?
I’m not suggesting that a writer’s subject should determine how they are presented. But a little more sensitivity to their feelings might not be a bad thing. Take Euodia and Syntyche in the Bible. I sometimes wonder how they feel about going down in history as two bickering women—for that is all we know of them from Paul’s admonition in his letter to the Philippians.
At the same time, that their falling out is highlighted in Scripture indicates that addressing something may matter more than someone’s reputation.
Perhaps the answer is for all journalists to become reported rather than reporter at least once. They could take a lesson from nursing schools, where the trainees practice giving injections on each other. They might learn that there are times when sticking someone is the right thing, but you should still do it as kindly as possible—because you know how it feels to be on the sharp end.