When the story doesn't pan out, and the value of reader trust

The 89th annual feast of San Gennaro is currently taking place in Little Italy. As a pseudo-Italian myself, I knew I wanted to at the very least make an appearance. And because one of my grad school assignments involves weekly stories based off of New York City events, I decided to combine my two loves and write a story about the feast.

The entrance to the feast, on Mulberry Street.

So on Thursday after class, my friend Leann and I headed downtown and spent two hours wandering the streets of Little Italy, talking to vendors and residents and, in Leann's case, attracting the interest of all the eager Italian boys.

The sign welcoming visitors to the feast.

I spoke to 10 different people and gathered a hodgepodge of views on the festival as well as Little Italy itself. I thought it was going to be a great story, one that highlighted how gentrification had changed the culture of the once-tightknit community and even altered people's perceptions of the feast. There was just one problem: the residents and vendors who spoke negatively of the area refused to give me their names.

I guess they were scared. I get that. And in my eagerness to write the story, I forgot one important rule: we can only quote anonymous sources under mitigating circumstances.

So I wrote my story and sent it to my professor.

It didn't go over well. The story, it turned out, was a flop. Worse: there was no story, not without someone being willing to come forward and put their name to their words.

There's something terribly discouraging about realizing that you've failed in your reporting. Not that I think there was anything more I could have done — I bartered with my sources, but both refused to give full names, and nobody else seemed willing to speak disparagingly of the event. But it's still a disappointment to feel like you have a story at your fingertips and have to let it go.

But I understand why that's what had to happen. It's one of the basic rules of journalism: honesty and transparency. If I don't let my readers know where my facts are coming from, how can they trust that I'm not just making them up?

Earlier this week, I spent a long time researching Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter who was fired in 2003 for fabricating quotes and stories. What he did was wrong not just because he failed his employers, but because he failed his readers. He presented as truth something that was, in fact, falsehood.

As journalists, all we have is the perception that our word is good, that it's worth something. If we lose that, well ... we have nothing.

So as hard as it was to let go of my story, I knew I had to do it. Not just because my professor told me to (although of course I do like to follow my teachers' instructions, on account of them being smarter than me and all that), but because I don't want to start my journalism career on unstable ground.

I want to be the kind of journalist that people trust.

I want to be someone sources have no fear entrusting their names to, knowing that I have great respect for the privilege they are affording me and that I will do everything in my power to protect them.

But I also want to be someone readers believe in, someone whose words matter. I want to be the kind of reporter who is so honest and open about where my information comes from that, if I ever do have to hide a source, people will know it's for a good reason, and believe that what I say is truth.

As I've mentioned before, I'm incredibly passionate about the role of journalism in society. I honestly think it's one of those things that has to exist, because people need to be able to trust someone to tell them the truth no matter what. And I don't want to do anything to jeopardize having that future.

It's a bit of an ego-killer to not get a story published, especially after my first story turned out well. It feels like I'm slipping backwards instead of surging forward. But it made me realize I have to decide what I value more: getting published, or being trustworthy.

I think I'll choose the latter.

My New York Weekend

I left the apartment in the pouring rain at 5:30 a.m. and spent the next six hours on and off of planes, trying to get from Wilmore, Kentucky to New York City. I was supposed to be at NYU's School of Journalism at 11 a.m. for an event, but I didn't even land until 11:30 a.m., at which point I jumped right in a cab and sped to 20 Cooper Square. Where I promptly fell in love with the program.

But today isn't meant to talk about the grad schools I visited and my decisions about that. No, that will come next week (because those decisions still have not fully been made). Today is to talk about my experience in New York April 10-13.

Becca and I hanging in Central Park

It's the city I've dreamed of living in for the past few years, the city that felt like home when I first stepped onto its soil two years ago for the CMA conference. It's also the city that one of my good friends lives in with her husband. So Friday night, once I finished up at the visit event for Columbia, Becca and I made our way to her adorable apartment, where we ate pizza and watched Project Runway. Afterwards, we (and by we I mean Becca and Luke, because I was hiding in the bathroom to avoid manual labor) pulled out the futon and I collapsed and slept the night away.

Saturday, after my Columbia events, I went exploring with Becca. We visited Washington Square Park, where we saw a performing troupe do a wild jump over the heads of a bunch of spectators. The park itself was packed; it was a beautiful Saturday, and people flooded out to fill its corners. And that's one of the things that excites me so much about New York: there's always something going on, always a story to tell or, even better, to live.

We also visited Little Italy!

Little Italy, where I ate some stellar cannoli and love everything.

And on Sunday, after a great brunch at CUNY, Becca and I visited Central Park, where even more was happening than in Washington Square Park.

You guys, New York is the city that I love. It's the city my heart belongs to--well, the American city my heart belongs to. And I'm so exctied, and so hoping to be there this fall.