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.