Please don’t Bend the Truth – aka LIE – To Reporters
In the town where I live, I come across many active, vibrant senior citizens. We work out on the treadmill or the elliptical machines side by side. I peek in on their senior exercise classes and think, that’s how I want to be when – if – I reach that age. I want to be able to still walk on my own, lift a medicine ball over my head on my own.
Many of the seniors that I met at a local senior center were indeed very active. They take classes like Zumba Gold. Line Dancing. I wrote a column about senior programming that was long overdue. I stand guilty of concentrating a lot of my column on more youthful topics, like short-sided soccer and children’s theatre.
The seniors at this center who had just sat down for lunch were thrilled I was there and made me feel very welcome. Okay, they made me feel like a movie star. They were charming and friendly and had some interesting stories to share. One woman told me all about the trips she went on in Elderhostel and all the art she has seen the world over. Intrigued, I asked her more about her life. She said before she had children, she was a professor of fine arts at a local college.
Really? A lover of art, a former student of many art history classes, I was intrigued. I wanted to know more about this woman’s career. She had to be in her late seventies, so having such a profession in her time must have been ground breaking. I sat and chatted a bit more with her friends at this one table, and parted happy and satisfied that I had my story.
A day later, there was a message on my voice mail. It was the woman who I interviewed. The fine arts professor. She said that she may have bent the truth a bit about being a fine arts professor, and she was up at night worrying that I may have printed it, and please don’t print it.
Honestly, at that point I had not even started to write the piece, but I was planning on making this woman a prominent part of my story. I may have even called her to do a separate profile. So, I went through my notes and put a red line through what were untruths. I didn’t call her back.
Days later, she left another message. She was so sorry she had lied and was “worried to death” that I had printed what she said. Poor woman, I called her back to give her peace of mind.
Turns out she was a very sweet woman, she just lied. She said she had applied for an academic position at this college but was not given one. I guess that her feelings of resentment and rejection were long-lived. I told her no worries, I had not quoted her in my story after her initial message.
There are many temptations in our lives to lie, especially if we look back on our lives and wish that it had been a bit more exciting, more successful. How many times have we seen celebrities and politicians apologize for bending the truth to the media? How many times have we seen an author of a successful memoir later stand up and admit that they lied?
There has been much coverage about journalists losing sight of their ethical responsibility to report the truth. As traditional journalism disintegrates into the blogosphere, the truth becomes even more muddled. Last November, Arianna Huffington spoke at Ithaca College about the emerging crisis in mainstream media, about how the media does not cover what really happens in our communities but instead focuses on bogus stories to get ratings. She specifically referenced last fall’s “Balloon Boy” fiasco.
So here I am, writing for a traditional print newspaper, focusing my column about everyday people doing good in their towns. But if sweet little old ladies can lie to a lowly freelance reporter like me for a story about a senior citizen center, really, what hope is there for truth in journalism?