“St. Olaf does not have a journalism program,” I said to far too many prospective first-years while tabling for the Manitou Messenger during admitted students day. “But,” I always followed up, “a lot of successful journalists have graduated from this school.”
Without experienced journalism professors, industry-specific classes, or library books published after the rise of the internet, on-campus journalism resources are few and far between at St. Olaf. The Messenger is one of the few, and hopefully this website will serve as another. But even then, journalists learn best by doing, and that includes making mistakes. Below are some of the biggest blunders that I’ve made during my three years at the Messenger; don’t make the same mistakes I did, make different ones.
I forgot to introduce myself as a reporter, and I ended up hearing valuable, likely private information about a donor to the College that I was investigating. Even though I assured my source that our conversation would stay off-the-record, it ended up being a waste of everybody’s time, not to mention damaging to our source relationship.
I sent an email about an ongoing investigation into college policy to the President of the College. Let me tell you, the gmail autofill feature for email addresses is handy, but not foolproof. In this case I was the fool, and I didn’t double check my addresses. On a similar note, St. Olaf accounts aren’t completely secure, so use a separate, personal account when communicating with sources about sensitive information.
It’s a.m. and p.m., with the dots. I should have double checked that before I sent an email confusing the copy editing team. AP Style is not common sense, so check it again and again.
I dropped important stories because someone powerful told me to. The role of a student journalist is difficult because you’re challenged to check the College and to obey it. But there’s no harm in conducting an investigation if you believe that there could be a story. If somebody tells you to stop digging around, that can often be translated to “there’s something I don’t want you to find.” Whoever it is that’s asking you to stop snooping, remember that they are not the journalist, you are.
I used a pullout about the fall season to fill space on A1, and the Mess staff has turned it into a meme that I will never escape. Can you think of something less newsworthy than a three-to-four-month period that arrives every year since the beginning of time? I can’t. But I didn’t have any ideas on the back burner and I punted. If a story falls through and you need to fill page space, find something, anything, more newsworthy than the weather, and communicate with your co-editors and the exec team.
I was naive enough to believe that not everybody had an agenda. The College has a vested interest in protecting itself, and it’s easy to forget that when talking to College officials. Students, faculty and staff can also have a personal agenda. Also, some sources have an interest in disparaging someone or something else. The Mess often runs into this when students throw accusations at the College without fully understanding a situation. Don’t forget to question all sides and do your own research.
I published fake news. I did, and you know this f*** up happened last year because I’m using the term fake news. Each Mess article passes through at least seven hands – one writer, two section editors, two copy editors and two executives – before it goes to print. In this instance, all seven neglected to question key misinformation in the story. I try not to beat myself up about it because we had found ourselves in an unusually tough spot that week, but I recognize that in the professional world I could have been fired for such a mistake. Fact-check your work, always, at every step of the way, and if you’re ever unsure about something when you send the story to your editors at 6:59 on Sunday night, tell them about it.
And at any point in your journalism career, don’t be afraid to ask for help. That’s what your editors are here for. Seriously, don’t let all of my mistakes be for nothing.