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Journalists make mistakes; it's what they learn that matters

Friday, October 30, 2009 | 11:46 a.m. CDT; updated 5:19 p.m. CDT, Saturday, October 31, 2009

Dear Reader,

Mistakes hurt. It’s often how we learn our most important lessons.

You may have seen a story from that other newspaper in town last week about a mistake by Missourian staff photographer Chris Dunn. She was covering a murder trial last week. Several photos she took included the jury in the background. One of them found its way onto ColumbiaMissourian.com on Friday.

The jurors in the photo were blurred and largely unidentifiable. No matter. Journalists must play by the rules of the court, and most of the rules are pretty much common-sense practices to avoid disrupting the legal process.

Chris wrote about the experience. Her blog post is extraordinary for its brutal openness:

Armed with a 300mm lens, a 70-200mm and a 17-35mm, I knew the following before I entered the courtroom at 12:45 p.m.:

  •     Do not photograph the jury.
  •     Do what the judge tells me to do. Do not anger or even mildly irritate the judge.
  •     Be respectful and quiet. This means not firing off more than three frames at a time.
  •     Do not photograph the jury.

I photographed the jury.

That is why:

  •     The Missourian reporter was kicked out of the courtroom this morning,
  •     The photo director called me,
  •     I had to explain exactly what happened to several editors,
  •     I could have been put in jail for contempt of court,
  •     I spent the next hour tearfully worrying and wondering what would happen next,
  •     I wrote a letter of apology to the judge,
  •     I ended up on A1 of The Columbia Daily Tribune and
  •     I am writing this blog post.

More specifically, I am writing this blog post to clarify exactly what happened. I believe in transparency, and I believe that other journalism students and journalists can learn from my mistakes.

She goes on to describe what happened during the assignment that Thursday afternoon and during the fallout Friday morning. The facts are mostly consistent with the information I received. The lessons reach far beyond Chris and will last far longer.

The first mission of the Columbia Missourian is to serve as a daily news and information source for the people of mid-Missouri. Its staff expect to be treated as the practicing journalists they are, even when that means accepting consequences for errors made.

For 101 years, the Missourian has helped produce another product: the next generation of journalists around the country and the world. Its student-journalists sometimes struggle but usually get better.

I’m proud of Chris. Rather than hide from her mistake, she helped others learn.

And that, dear reader, is a lesson for all of us.

Tom


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