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Journalists should tell their stories, even when they are part of the story

Wednesday, September 9, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

As a young journalist, I've been taught that objectivity reigns supreme in our field. But as time has gone on, I've learned that rules can be broken.

For three years, I've lived in the buildings at 400 and 402 S. Ninth St., more affectionately known as the "J-slums" because of their tendency to attract journalism majors. During that time, I've put up with some pretty uncomfortable living situations.

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Yes, the location is great. But too many times, something unfavorable would happen at these buildings, and I'd hear someone say, "Why isn't someone covering this?"

The reason has been that many of us have worked at news outlets in town and feared it could be a self-serving story. Thus, nothing was reported. Until now.

I reached a tipping point in January, when construction abruptly began behind the buildings. Without much of any notice, residents were forced to move their cars and adapt to heavy drilling at 8 a.m. daily.

The former manager of The Flying Cow T-shirt Co., Mike Keevins, was conducting the construction, and our landlord, Mark Stevenson of Real Estate Management Inc., wasn't very helpful in advocating for his tenants. Neither told us anything about the construction more than a week in advance; our only warning was a sheet of paper in front of our cars telling us they had to move.

Then, almost as soon as construction started, it stopped. The construction company, Finding Frog Realty Co. (now owned by Keevins), changed plans and is in the process of resubmitting its information to the city.  But we have had to deal with the remnants of what has been a mess from the beginning.

A large truck was used as a trash-dumping point for the residents, construction workers and members of the public and after seven months was still there.

The garbage was drenched with rain, snow and hail, and it sat in the heat day after day after day to the point that it was unbearable. The trash also attracted a family of feral cats. A portable toilet remained where it was when the construction crew used it. It was pointless to keep that toilet there — the only people who used it were drunks walking back from the bars on weekends.

Finally, the work the construction crew did (tearing up the Plasma Center) left an empty, fenced-in lot of dirt, which, through many nights of rain, turned into a swamp. We could hear frogs on a nightly basis, and going outside meant walking through a swarm of insects.

For seven months, I put up with that. I had always avoided covering anything I was a part of, and used to not bother public officials I've probably interviewed before. But this wasn't a conflict of interest, this was residents' health at stake.

I contacted the Health Department and left a message with a laundry list of public health nuisances. About 10 days later, nothing had been fixed. So I e-mailed First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz, as well as REMI and Keevins. I never heard back from Sturtz, and I wasn't surprised I received no reply from either business.

Sure enough, though, I heard back from the Health Department the following day. Soon after that, the portable toilet and dump truck were removed, and the stagnant water was drained.

This story isn't anything particularly dramatic or special. I made a phone call; I sent an e-mail. The fascinating part of this is how long so many bright journalists sat on what would be such a fantastic story and how long we put up living in such poor conditions.

Worrying too much about my professional life and probably not enough about my personal life cost me my quality of living and, until now, a story worth telling. But telling the story has allowed me to see this truth relatively early in my journalism career. We're taught as journalism students that the ideal of objectivity is sacred and we mustn't play with it. But where do you draw this line? In most cases, I've erred on the conservative side to avoid any complications. 

But, I finally reached a point where I felt I had to cross the line — or at least extend it past my original notion of where it lay. I never imagined I'd be writing an opinion piece about this, much less taking any action. I've learned that too much adherence to objectivity outside of a professional realm can be problematic.

Michael Sewall is a senior journalism student at MU. He is an assistant city editor and a reporter for the Columbia Missourian.


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