During his recent visit to UMass, Pulitzer prize-winner Gene Weingarten told a few stories. One of them involved an exchange with Bob Kaiser — one of my favorite editors from my time at The Washington Post.
The story was an amusing one and involved an effort by Weingarten and one of his reporters to construct a profile on a person who made a living off of writing term papers for college students. After the interview turned out not to be the best, the reporter jokingly suggested they have the term-paper writer write the story, put it under the reporter’s byline and wait until the kicker at the end of the story to let the reader know they had been duped.
As with most of Weingarten’s story, there were chuckles from the crowd when Weingarten decided to go ahead with the idea.
But Weingarten continued and said that Kaiser, then the managing editor at The Post, said that while he liked the story, misleading the reader violated the contract of trust that journalists have with their audience.
“We don’t lie to our readers,” Kaiser told Weingarten.
The story was from the pre-Web days but even then Kaiser seemed ahead of his time with his notions of transparency.
Weingarten also gave some old-school stories about getting information and interviews through some questionable means early in his career — including hiding behind a curtain during a city council meeting.
Finally, Weingarten spoke about the stories surrounding both of his Pulitzer Prizes, including “Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car is a Horrifying Mistake. Is it a Crime?” In describing how he was able to get people to talk to him about this difficult topic, Weingarten said he related his own story to interview subjects, sharing how he almost killed his daughter, Molly, the same way.
To a near-quiet audience of a couple of hundred people, Weingarten related how one day in the early 1980s he was taking his daughter to daycare, made a wrong turn and ended up in parking lot of The Miami Herald. He was about to get out of his car when his daughter saved a tragedy from occurring.
“As I was about to get out, Molly said something and that’s the only reason she’s a veterinarian today,” recalled Weingarten.
It was a moving story, especially since it was delivered to a room filled with budding journalists. Yet, the admission is not found anywhere in the narrative of the Pulitzer prize-winning story. In an online discussion after the story was published in The Post, Weingarten told his story. So, while there was transparency, it was transparency after the fact. Since Weingarten’s visit, I’ve had several class discussions on Weingarten’s appearance and what it means to be transparent in today’s 24-hour news cycle.
And, after reading the online discussion, some students felt angry, almost emotionally manipulated by the story he wrote. Would readers’ opinions on the topic have been different if Weingarten had been transparent within the story?
For me, I remember the huge discussion that happened after the story was originally published. As a father of three, I have a built-in bias. I was repulsed by the headline and the attempt to classify these deaths as “mistakes.”
Being transparent would have provided Weingarten with a different approach to the story and perhaps swayed those holding my opinion. But, most importantly, Weingarten would have been honest with the reader. Letting the reader know you have an emotional investment in the story is one of the main arguments for being transparent.