Thursday, December 13, 2007

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

A Confession

A Confession

By Rick Adams

I got my start in journalism when I was fifteen and a sophomore in high school on the school paper. I’m sure you’d all agree that I’ve come a long way since then. But in today’s column, I want to tell you about my first story assignment on that paper. It’s weighed heavy on my mind for a long time and I decided I could no longer continue bringing you stories and opinions until I cleared the air.

“But it was a long time ago, and in high school,” some of you might say, but this is truly the most honest thing I can think to do.

My editor then was a young man named Alex Gedicks who passed away shortly after his graduation a year later. He was a good editor for a seventeen-year-old kid, fair minded with a flair for what would get students to read papers. It was the knowledge of his skill that made me resent him slightly when he passed down my first story assignment. “400 East,” he told me, “you know the road that leads to the front parking lot to the school? Why has it been under construction for so long and when is it going to be finished?”

“I don’t know,” I replied, not comprehending that this would be my first story.

“Find out. It’s going to be on page three in this weeks paper. You’ve got till school’s out in three days.”

The school bell rang and I went home, terrified of my deadline. I didn’t even know the first place to start. I made a few calls to the city works but never got further than a secretary. I suppose at that stage in my life I was too timid to work the phones although I certainly grew into it over the years.

Two days went by and I had gotten nowhere. My homework had piled up in all of my other subjects and getting to the bottom of the road construction had managed to slip it’s way down to the bottom of my priority list.

I needed to turn a story in and I hadn’t talked to a single person and I hadn’t done the research. So I did what any fifteen-year-old kid does when he has a book report due on a book he hasn’t read.

Which is to say, I made it up.

I fabricated quotes and everything. In the story I had gone to the city and found that the delay had to do with budget constraints and then I went out and interviewed the workers on the road.

“We’re gonna be burnin’ the midnight oil on this one to get ‘er done on time.” These were the actual words I put in the mouth of a construction worker I named Fred Hollenbeck.

I turned in the story and all anyone said was, “Good work.”

The story was published and I’m assuming no one who knew otherwise had read it because no one ever seemed to notice any of the problems in it.

Thinking back on it, that story was as good as any to start with, it’s something I could have sunk my teeth into today, despite its seeming innocuousness. But I didn’t. I fabricated what should have been a news story. I learned from there, I never did it again. I felt so guilty about it I made doubly sure to check all of my references and sources afterwards, sometimes to a fault.

Perhaps that’s what high school newspapers are for, though. Journalists like myself can make those mistakes there instead of here, where things truly matter. Had I made that mistake today or at any point during my professional career I'd be blacklisted. I'd never work at a paper again, but maybe this really is the purpose of high school papers.

Maybe not. Perhaps I am just trying to justify my preposterous lapse of judgment.

In any case, I’ve now removed this weight from my chest and I’ll understand if I have less people reading what I put beneath my byline now.

I thank you for your time.

Rick Adams is a daily columnist and associate editor of the Times' opinion page.