A seasoned reporter, Jim Wright, once heckled the complaints of cub reporter in his first weeks on the job. The youth had written about a controversial court case that had drawn fire from both the defendant and prosecutor, each claiming he was more favorable to the other side.
“In my experience, if no one is mad at you, then you aren’t doing your job right,” said Jim as we sat in the Chenango County court press box.
“When no one’s happy, now that’s a really work of art,” he added, chuckling at my personal torment.
He was right.
In my conversation with Jim and in my last few years of personal experience, I’ve learned that people expect you to only tell their side of the story, not scrutinize it.
The polarized forum of the courtroom drama tends to embody this more frequently than others, but the concept is applicable to any conflict with opposing positions.
Even the most solid of arguments has holes on both either side – some obviously more than others. Sitting from the press box I’ve watched a dozen or so trials, including two murders, and on occasion I’ve felt as if I was watching a recorded football game after a friend had accidentally blurted out the score.
At other times, I sweat with the anxiety of indecision and find relief in knowing I’m not the one who has to decide anything.
I simply record the verdict and then construct, in reverse, a story founded on the ends of a case and not on its heavily-debated means.
I’ve long had a policy of speaking to anyone who wishes to speak to me – defendants, victims, or the family members of either side. I’ve been scolded, threatened, pleaded with and thanked, sometimes all in the same conversation.
Sometimes following a verdict, those who feel the bite of the injustice reach out to me to have the “real story” told in paper. I sympathize deeply with them; it is one of the few parts of this job that still robs me of sleep.
I tell them I try hard not to create a story, only convey it. I absorb words of concern and fury regarding their loss of faith in the system and although in most cases it does not deter the overall layout of a piece, it certainly has an effect on a few parts of the telling.
I’ve heard the mourns of injustice told by the victim only minutes after hearing their alleged perpetrator has been exonerated. At other times I’ve heard the professed wails of innocence from bereaved sons and mothers who must watch their loved ones escorted out in shackles, en route to a decade of incarceration.
At these times I can not escape the burden of my profession. I find my mind irately occupied and my heart very heavy for days after these most human of encounters.
Rationality and justice are often cold to the touch when put to the heart. By their very virtue and nature, they stand apart from our emotional impulses. I have no comfort to relieve my tensions but find solace in accurately telling the truth of what has been portrayed, even if those events themselves are questionable.
Journalism is a window on the wall for the public to glimpse out; it is not a painting to be admired. The value of the trade is in transparency, not creativity.