First Person

Fear of screwing up

April 22, 2015

That could’ve been me.

If you heard about the retracted Rolling Stone rape story, you might have thought that to yourself when you considered its now disgraced reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely.

I know I did.

Erdely screwed up. Big time. We can tell ourselves she was always a terrible journalist, but she’s had a strong career. We can tell ourselves our editors and fact-checkers will protect us–if we have them–but no system is foolproof. We can tell ourselves we’d never in a million years experience such a big lapse in judgment, but we know better.

That could’ve been you.

When we talk about what it takes to do our jobs well, we focus on ethics and process and hard-wired discipline.

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But maybe what keeps journalists most in line is fear.

“I don’t know a good journalist on the planet who doesn’t fear making a Big Mistake with almost every story of any substance,” Missouri journalism professor Jacqui Banaszynski wrote to me. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for a series on a gay couple struggling with AIDS.

In light of the Rolling Stone report released this month by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, I asked journalists to share on Facebook, Twitter, and email how they experience their own fear of screwing up.

“Oh, you mean sitting bolt upright in bed at 3am trying to remember if you fixed something in the story?” wrote Roy Neese, former copy editor and reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and the Alaska Star, to many a Facebook “like.”

To be a journalist, you have to be afraid. Fear makes you triple-check your work. It makes you sharper, faster, more focused. It wakes you up in the middle of the night, or drops in unexpectedly at that party or dinner. Fear demands that you be absolutely sure you want to say every little thing you’re saying.

In journalism, as in life, some fear is necessary. But too much fear is paralyzing.

Are you too afraid to do good journalism? Or not afraid enough?

Consider, for a moment, how our Fear of Screwing Up is rising:

1. We have far, far more opportunities to screw up. Tweets, blog posts, comments, mobile alerts.

David Cohn, executive producer at AJ Plus, feels his heart race when he prepares to ship off an email newsletter. “I sometimes even edit and then hand it off to somebody else to hit the final ‘send’ button because I just can’t,” he wrote on Facebook.

2. We are making more of our mistakes straight to the public, instead of to editors.

P. Kim Bui of social media news organization, who recently misspelled Colombia in a tweet–“That whole country’s pissed at me!” she told me over Skype–calls that making mistakes “out loud.”

Tracy Record, editor of the hyperlocal West Seattle Blog, is particularly nervous when she has to rush to cover an event right after having published a story. “I *pray* I didn’t do something stupid,” she wrote on Facebook. “Even having been an editor/producer/manager for 20-plus years before this doesn’t make me infallible.”

3. The personal cost of the biggest reporting screwups, particularly when they’re made in ambitious stories about risky, socially charged issues, is higher than ever.

You don’t just offend your subjects. You don’t just offend your readers. If the screwup is bad enough to be news in itself, you offend everyone. And thanks to social media and the rise of the personal brand, everyone can direct their anger at you, instantly and publicly.

Erdely hasn’t tweeted since Nov. 30, a few days after her Rolling Stone story ran. One look at a search for mentions of her Twitter handle, and I can understand why.

We don’t like to talk about our screwups, but they haunt us–especially the ones that leave us as perplexed and hurt as the people whose stories we mishandle.

They don’t have to threaten our careers to make us feel terrible.

“Every mistake I make is a major mistake to me,” Allison Roberts, cops and courts reporter for Virginia’s Danville Register & Bee, wrote on Facebook.

Less than two years into my career, I wrote a story about an older woman whose friends threw her a retirement party big enough to cover in Michigan’s Midland Daily News. I went. I got great quotes. Then I gave her a completely different last name.

We caught the error in time to correct a couple editions of the paper, but not all of them. I have no idea where that made-up name came from. I spent the rest of that day in a haze.

I did that? How did I do that?

If you’d asked me that morning, I’d have said of course I checked every name before I publish.

My problem wasn’t that I didn’t know what to do. It’s that I lacked a strong motivation in that moment to do it.

Put another way: I didn’t have enough fear.

“The times I didn’t have enough fear were the times I needed to write a correction,” Dallas Morning News education reporter Jeffrey Weiss wrote on Facebook.

Too little fear is bad, but so is too much. Quill Magazine editor Scott Leadingham summed this up to me with a question: “Will fewer journalists write about campus rape because of what happened with Rolling Stone?”

If so, everybody loses.

Tough, important stories aren’t just tough to report. They’re tough to take on. Who wants to risk a career-crippling misstep if they don’t have to?

I’ve wondered if this is the biggest, deepest challenge facing everyday journalists–how to turn fear into courage.

I’ve passed likely trails to important stories because I was scared. Once, someone gave me documents he believed supported a complicated allegation and they sat on my desk. Another time, I met an undocumented immigrant who convinced me his story was important, but I didn’t do the work to convince my newsroom of the same. I’ve rationalized avoidance in other ways: I don’t have time. I’m not qualified. Another reporter would do it better. But really, it was fear talking.

When Pulitzer Prize winner Barbara Walsh wanted to report a series about a Maine teen’s 2004 suicide, school social workers and suicide prevention experts discouraged her, saying the stories would inspire copycats. But rather than avoid what she knew was an important issue, she found a way in. With the support of her editors, she produced what she hoped was a responsible and important piece of journalism.

Still, the night before the first story ran she couldn’t sleep.

“I felt confident that everyone at my newspaper, the editors and copy-editors had handled the stories with care and sensitivity. But still the fear of suicide copycats haunted me,” she wrote in a 2005 Poynter reflection.

“I silently prayed that my stories would do more good than harm.”

They did. Her series in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, “Death Too Soon,” led Maine’s governor to start a task force on reducing the state’s high teen suicide rate. The public sent praise. Parents wrote in, grateful. One suicide prevention expert told her her series had saved lives.

“Do not let fear or intimidation stand in the way of a good story,” Walsh wrote me via email. “Conquer your fear by doing your job.”

So how much fear is the right amount of fear? I like the way Allison Roberts put it:

“The balance is shaping your fear into confidence and caution,” she wrote on Facebook. “When you’re confident in your job and abilities, you seek out those tougher stories knowing you have what it takes to tell them. But you’re still cautious enough to make sure that this great story is fairly and accurately told.”

As for screwing up, it’s going to happen, it’s going to suck, and if we’re going to take risks for the sake of our audiences, we have to learn to manage the fear.

“You can still only do the best you can, which means some screwups,” Seattle Globalist co-founder Sarah Stuteville wrote on Facebook.

Erdely’s screwup is on her. But if it scares journalists away from pursuing important issues, that’s on us.

“I hope that my mistakes in reporting this story do not silence the voices of victims that need to be heard,” Erdely wrote in a statement released in conjunction with the Columbia University report.

Fear is a motivator. Let’s not let it be an excuse.

Monica Guzman is a CJR columnist, as well as a technology and culture columnist for The Daily Beast and GeekWire. She serves as vice-chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee and was a juror for the 2014 Pulitzer Prizes.