A note for student editors: There is life after major screwups

Some college newspaper editors here at Mizzou have landed in a heap of controversy after the publication of an April Fools issue.

They’re in good company. Young journalists learn early that their mistakes have big consequences, that they have to learn in the public eye and that jokes they find funny are lost on a larger audience.

I know about these situations personally because I was one of those students. As the editor of my college paper, The Oklahoma Daily, I was the object of an outraged audience’s wrath not once but twice. Both times, I published something I thought was going to be helpful for discussion about race relations on campus. And both times, the audience made it clear just how wrong I was.

And boy, was I wrong.

In both cases, I could — and did — try to persuade people that my reasons for publishing were sincere and that I hadn’t intended to offend anyone. And in both cases, my intentions didn’t matter much. My decisions as an editor distanced me and the newspaper from groups of students on campus who I actually wanted to improve communication with.

My beloved college newspaper adviser, Jack Willis, wrote a column for the Oklahoma Gazette in 2010 about these kinds of mistakes, and he interviewed me. That interview offered me a chance to reflect on my primary mistake, which had to do not with what I published but instead with how I responded. I got defensive. I was hurt that my motives were being questioned, and I wanted badly to convince everyone that I was really a good person at heart. I talked more than I listened. (I don’t think that same mistake has been made with the student editors at The Maneater.)

You know what else is different? I didn’t make my mistake in the Internet age. There is no digital record of exactly what I published. I’m sure I wrote a column in response to the situation, but I’d have to call Norman, Okla., to find a copy in the archives. There are no social media posts, from me or anyone else, regarding the situation. If you google my name, I think only mention of my college days is a reporting award I won.

Not so for today’s young editors.

That doesn’t, however, mean that their journalism careers are over when they’d hardly begun. They have a chance to make sure that when I google their names, more comes up than criticism and apologies. They have a chance for their lessons learned to be just as public as their mistakes. They have an opportunity for a large conversation about the relationship between satire and news in the days of The Daily Show. They should blog, a lot. And post, a lot. Get their names out their in positive ways.

They can, however, have bright futures as journalists. The mistakes my 20- and 21-year-old self made really have made me better, smarter and more humble. To quote a recently overused but effective message: It gets better. There is life after mistakes, scandals and embarrassment. You will be better for it.

And damned if you don’t have the best possible answer to the age-old interview question: “Tell me about a time you made a mistake.”

Anyone in the mood to share a big mistake you made early in your career? I’d love to hear it, especially if it was really embarrassing. And especially if you survived it.

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7 thoughts on “A note for student editors: There is life after major screwups

  1. Ugh. The lessons we’ve learned the hard way. I have mine, too, and I don’t even have the excuse of youth to blame it on. (but I can probably blame it on immaturity and ego.)

    I don’t remember the exact year, but I took some photos in the company studio for a candidate for the Des Moines school board. Relatively small potatoes, but the Des Moines Register is a very principled paper and I was called on the carpet. And reported on page 1A so that the Register had full disclosure.

    Being the one making the news for the wrong reasons is really hard, but we can live through our mistakes and continue to succeed in this profession.

    To Abigail Spudich and Travis Cornejo, keep your heads up and keep breathing. This, too, shall pass.

    Karen Mitchell

  2. While a Missourian photographer, I made a very public mistake (http://blog.christhedunn.com/2009/11/25/more-lessons-from-the-courtroom/) that The Columbia Daily Tribune misreported and that the AP picked up, thus spreading the incorrect report. I remember lying on my couch weeping over the phone to a friend about how my life was over because every editor would Google me, assume me to be a disrespectful photographer and not hire me.

    Almost two years later, I was in a job interview wherein I said I’ve been through fire and came out alive. One of the editors asked me to expound. I began describing my mistake when the other editor in the interview suddenly exclaimed that she was a Missouri alumna who had been in the classroom when my photojournalism professor had me explain everything to the class as a teachable moment.

    They hired me.

    Life goes on.

  3. This was a really sweet thing to write, Joy. I’m a senior at MU and had a not-so public screw up regarding race my sophomore year at The Maneater as photo editor and I have learned so much since then. Being more inclusive and less stereotypical in the pictures I publish has been kind of my mantra since.

    I think it’s wonderful to write this sort of thing. I can’t imagine how hard it must be for these two to go through such a public screw-up on the Internet, but I hope it does not completely crush their push for the careers they want to pursue in the future.

  4. I can identify with the pleas for understanding from an angered, hurt readership. The editor of my college paper decided to run an offensive editorial (satire comparing biracial marriage to beastiality) the week before I started my one-year term as editor. Even though it wasn’t my decision to run the piece, I spent the first three months trying to undo the damage it caused. I made your mistake — I got defensive and tried to explain everything, which was seen as arrogance. A good friend who happened to be in the offended crowd and was still talking to me even though I wasn’t responsible for the editorial, I was responsible for the community’s relationship with the paper.

    The experience forced me dig deep into the feelings of others while keeping my own emotions in check — not easy for a 20-year-old college student. If I had let it get to me, the incident might have derailed my path toward journalism. Instead, it taught me very early on that news organizations fail when they don’t or refuse to communicate with the community they serve, which has clearly stuck with me into my professional career.

  5. I incorrectly reported that the state of Missouri was cutting off ALL funding to Columbia Public Schools, which clearly was not true. It published on 1A and I was horrifyingly embarrassed, especially because it was my last big school board story for my reporting semester.

    Now, I still cringe when I remember it, but I bring it up a lot when I talk to beginning reporters at the Missourian to let them know that life does go on. Yes, I screwed up big-time. But, I fixed my mistake as soon as I was able. My editors still liked me, and I was hired as an ACE the next semester.

    More than anything, that mistake was a reminder to me to take my time, double check all my facts, and dissect complicated budgets like crazy so I know with certainty what I am reporting on.

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