Journalism is about hooking the audience. The more chilling, heart-wrenching and moving a story, the better it is.
Journalists search for people who survived a disaster, dug their ways out of the rubble, or saved countless lives only to lose their own.
Readers don’t just want the facts — they want the moving, human emotions associated with the event.
But with this search to find the perfect human element comes great responsibility to do both the subject and the reader justice.
I was faced with this debacle in my first week as an E.W. Scripps Statehouse News Bureau intern at The Columbus Dispatch.
Assigned the task of calling Columbus-area residents who took a 9/11 survey, I scoured the pages of names for someone who had a colorful connection to the event.
About 20 phone calls in, I came across a man who appeared to have the same answers as everyone else. “Sept. 11 made me realize how short life was,” etc., etc., etc.
Bracing myself for the same old interview where I had to feign interest knowing that I probably wouldn’t use his quotes, he said something that sent my journalism instincts tingling.
“I shared a cell in Leavenworth with the first World Trade Center bombers.”
My heart pounding, I couldn’t breathe. Could this be the epic connection I was looking for? I tried to contain my excitement as I continued the interview, probing him for more information about the brainwashed insanity that was housed in his cell.
Nervously, I asked what he had done to end up in Leavenworth. “Bank robbery,” he said.
I hung up the phone and chills went shooting up my spine. The luck of randomly calling this 60-something man who could give a firsthand account of what it was like to spend time with a terrorist astounded me.
But I curtailed my accelerated heart rate and the rational side of my brain stepped in — I couldn’t use this unless I could prove it happened.
I immediately went to the public records. I combed the Dispatch prison database and searched countless article archives.
My heart sunk. Unless I could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was actually there, I couldn’t use his story.
So was it true? I’ll probably never know. He could have been telling the truth or lying through his teeth.
But to do the readers justice I had to use my journalism training and do the right thing — not use his story despite how incredible it would have made mine.
Alex Stuckey is a senior studying journalism and the assistant managing
editor of The Post. When do your journalistic senses tingle?
Send Alex an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.