Reporters don’t live in a vacuum. We have lives, sometimes messy ones. We have likes and dislikes, biases and prejudice. As much as we try to be objective and fair, we are imperfect, and we sometimes slip here and there.
Most reporters I know work hard be fair and balanced. Sometimes this takes the blunt excision of swaths of the story. As someone who has reported on local news in the town in which I live, I know how hard it can be. As a writer, I know my best work has come from subjects about which I care passionately and am the most informed about, and I’m proud of those pieces.
My personal motto has always been to get the facts straight, and let the readers form their own opinions. In truth, sometimes the facts lead most into inescapable conclusions, but that’s not the result of a writer’s bias. Facts speak for themselves.
And thank goodness for that.
I’ve written over the years about domestic violence. I’ve championed Family Shelter Service, an organization that helps victims of domestic abuse. I’ve interviewed the local police who lead the charge against this problem in my village. Hopefully, my stories and tweets have kept this issue in the spotlight.
I’m passionate about this scourge for a reason.
For years, I’ve quietly had to deal with a very unpleasant situation in my own life. My friends and family have long been aware and supportive, but I’ve been ashamed and embarrassed to speak publicly about my own experience with domestic abuse. I didn’t want to expose my children to any comments from the community in which they live and learn and play. Downers Grove is a political town, a small town, and I am not universally beloved. My stories have caused backlash on their own merit and I have accumulated detractors, which is par for the course.
But people can be cruel, and I’ve wanted to spare my boys. They’re older now, and I’ve stopped protecting them as vigilantly. At some point, as parents, we have to loosen the apron strings. Children are observant, and see for themselves the hurt and shock and shame of domestic abuse.
I saw something today about Rep. Joe Walsh saying that there was never a medical need for an abortion. That’s simply not true. And I realized that women often don’t speak up when these lies are promulgated because we feel like we should be ashamed. We’re embarrassed to admit to anything that might be used to attack our character, fairly or not.
The truth is, I had a D&C when my oldest was 6 months old. I had- was having- a miscarriage. Maybe. It was difficult to tell. I went under anesthesia not knowing if I would wake up with only one ovary- the thought was that I might have an ectopic pregnancy- and woke up to the instinctive knowledge that I wasn’t pregnant anymore.
Neither was I bleeding and at risk of dying.
There is a wall, traditionally, that separates the reporter from the reader. We write about issues and are never supposed to reveal our personal experiences or bias, even when those experiences are universal. I can write about the police sergeant that works on behalf of domestic abuse victims, but I can’t write that I care so damn much because I know what the victims have experienced.
Anyone who follows me on Twitter (and you should!) knows that I have a, um, thing, about traffic police. They drive me bonkers. In small towns, there are always spots that lend themselves to speeding- and there are always police waiting for you to do so. Why not just change the speed limit in that one spot? Because a ticket a day makes the pension pay, of course. Hmmmph.
This summer, I had to deal with the resurgence of a difficult individual. I was scared and worried and my family and friends were ready to lock me someplace safe. I didn’t want to call the local police department. I report on them. I didn’t want everyone to know my personal shame. I was embarrassed that someone else was making my life a place of fear.
Put like that, it seems ridiculous. In the moment, however, it makes clear and perfect sense.
So I turned to a former ChicagoNow blogger who was a police officer in another town. For all of my kvetching about the paramilitary, tyrannical philosophies of police with a traffic ticket to give, I am at my heart the worst kind of goody two shoes. I won’t even jaywalk. Weird, I know, for someone who views the speed limit as a suggestion and who rails against The Man, but there you go.
I needed advice and counsel and more than that, I needed my hand held. He did all three. And at the end of a very long conversation, I felt a huge sense of relief. I knew what to do, I had a plan, and it was going to be okay.
And it has been.
And I relearned an important lesson about stereotypes. Just as we rail against them, we do it, too. He wasn’t on a clock, and I don’t live in his town, but he gave me all the professional help he could. He didn’t have to, but the motto “protect and serve” is obviously more than just words to him.
And I am truly grateful for that.
You don’t know how your actions affect others. A kindness, a thoughtful act; these reap more than you can imagine. Until I talked to the very nice police officer, no one outside of my friends and family knew what I was going through. I had kept it a secret for years. Later, I would tell a colleague, and that punched a hole in the dam of silence.
This column sweeps it away.
Maybe if we stopped being ashamed and embarrassed we could help others stop feeling that way. Maybe as reporters we should not shy away from topics that we care about but reach for them. Maybe our passion is not our undoing, but our goal.
Something to think about this rainy Friday, anyway.