Several students at my school have a problem with the way our student-run newspaper, The Statesman, and I reported on a recent car accident on campus involving one of our staff photographers. We received a letter to the editor that said my work was “offensive.” Someone on Facebook said “we had no problem throwing one of our own under the bus.”
So I’d like to tell my side of this story.
On Thursday night, October 24, a friend and I went to go see the star-studded movie, “The Counselor.” It was awful. That movie should not have been made.
Just after midnight on Friday, October 25, a male student crashed his car into some bushes not too far from my building. I saw the police cars and the ambulance and called my news editor. We approached the scene together and did as much reporting as we could, without the help of the police officers at the scene I might add (they told us to contact media relations).
Next, we called our multimedia editor. I had already taken some photos on my editor’s camera but then we couldn’t figure out a certain setting on it and it was cold and dark and we were miserable.
We then went to our office. While I pieced together what we had witnessed, our multimedia editor edited the photos and prepared them for the website. Our news editor called our copy editor and woke her up to edit my story before we published it. We called a local towing company to make sure they were the ones at the scene. We emailed the local chief of police for comment, knowing that he wouldn’t get back to us until the morning. It was close to 2 a.m. when we left the office.
While many other people my age were in some sort of inebriated state and partying that night, I was working.
This was, by no means, fun or convenient for anyone involved. I don’t enjoy doing things like this. But it still has to be done.
It wasn’t until early Friday evening that we found out that the driver was a student and a Statesman photographer. We called the police chief, asked for the name and he gave it to us. He also told us that the officers believed the driver was under the influence of alcohol.
I then updated the story with the new details.
The reason I don’t get upset when readers try to shame us or critique our work is because I know they don’t understand the ethics of journalism. I know they don’t understand the legal issues and roadblocks we face in reporting. I know they don’t understand that my primary obligation is to them, not to myself.
I didn’t throw anyone under the bus by writing this story or publishing his name. I have no loyalty to this person. He was one of our photographers, yes. But he was already 18. He made the decision to drive. He’s responsible for his decisions and he’s going to face the consequences. In a small town like Stony Brook, one of those consequences is seeing his name in print. If I hadn’t published his name, I can almost guarantee that we would have been flooded with emails and phone calls about why we didn’t try hard enough to identify the driver.
What gets me the most is that nothing has been said about this student driving under the influence of alcohol. Isn’t that the bigger problem here? Is his reputation that I supposedly “tarnished” more valuable than the lives that could have been put in danger by his behavior?
The author of the letter to the editor said we were selective in our reporting because last semester we never reported the name of an officer who hit a student with his car and pinned her underneath for nearly half an hour. The author wrote that we didn’t show “the same passion for the truth” when we reported that story. But it wasn’t selective. We didn’t choose for media relations to not disclose the name to us. We didn’t choose the obstacles that were faced in front of us.
But all of this is part of what makes journalism fun. The stories, the people you meet, the outrage. You never know what you’re going to get.
I honestly hope every student-journalist finds his or herself in this situation in their academic career. It’s a learning experience that prepares you for the real world.
It’s also a defining moment. You find out what you’re really made of.