What Eastwick gets right and wrong about journalism

January 12, 2010

Joanna Frankel played the offbeat journalist character in ABC’s (now canceled) “Eastwick.” It’s good I watched purely for the entertainment value because its representation of newspaper journalism is way out of touch. (Nitpicking that part of the show with my husband was great fun.)

While it is true that smaller newspapers are thriving in these hard economic times, I know of no newspaper that has artistically sketched column sigs for every single reporter’s articles. You get a byline. (While we’re on the series’ inaccuracies, I’m sorry but the top reporter who just got a promotion would not be surprised she had a story on the front page. Oh, and we’re called copy editors at the newspaper–not fact checkers.)

One aspect of the show rang true, though–having a story stolen. Joanna tells another journalist about a story she’s working on, and he scoops her. While the fact that he hones in on the story doesn’t seem like such a stretch when you’re watching the show–it’s a major scandal she uncovers and the two journalists don’t really like each other anyhow–what are the ethics of this situation?

There are some shades of gray here. On the one hand, he’s a powerful journalist who’s just found out (through her boasting) that a politician admitted to corruption, and the constituents have a right to know that. They’re not friends in this series, but what if they were? Should he have still ran with the story? Should she have confronted him? She finally does, and he tells her, “I didn’t steal your story. There are more angles to it. You just have to find yours.”)

One time I talked about a feature story I planned on writing, and a person I considered a friend told me it wouldn’t sell. A year later, I saw something very similar in print–with the person’s byline. What’s kind of shocking is that I don’t think it was intentionally stolen. I honestly think this person forgot and thought s/he thought of it. I also wonder if I forfeited any right to the story because it’s an idea, after all, and I decided not to do said idea.

On the flip side, if you see an interesting article in the paper, is it OK to do your own, especially if you don’t know the writer, the angle will be different and it’s for a magazine?

I know I’m asking a lot of questions and giving relatively few answers, but I’d like to know the ethics.

2 Comments

  1. Hi Sherry, your site is fantastic. And I like your blog. I think you’ve raised interesting questions in this post, and it’s something I’ve been thinking a great deal about for the past year or so.

    I think the answer has two categories: On featury (featurey? featurie? I just don’t like limiting the word “feature” to this context) stories – personality profiles or movie, book or restaurant reviews, etc. – I tend to agree with the quote you’ve provided (“I didn’t steal your story. There are more angles to it. You just have to find yours.”). I think there are so many ways to attack stories like this that generally there’s no reason two people can’t tackle the same idea.

    Things get a bit more hazy in reporting breaking news, I guess, but it doesn’t have to. Personally, I think being “first” on a big story is given WAY too much value, often to the point of hurting the story. There are several famous prominent instances of this – “Dewey defeats Truman” and the television media’s role in the outcome of the 2000 election are the first two that jump to my mind. How many more that aren’t so prominent go unnoticed? How many stories are printed in bastardized versions because the editor or reporter just couldn’t stand to wait one more day?

    This is ultimately, in a dramatically oversimplified way, what drove me away from the industry late last year. I was reporting in a place with two highly competitive daily newspapers, but also millions of people who I thought needed a voice desperately. Yet, on an almost daily basis, I had editors in my face yelling about their fanatical quest to drive the other newspaper out of business, and never about helping the millions of impoverished and unemployed people where I was living. Any improvements that came to the environment we were in were simply an unintended side effect in the quest to be victors in some imaginary contest.

    Not every newsroom may be so dramatic, but the point still remains the same: In a perfect world, the simple fact that information is being presented would be reward enough, and the reporter would simply look for pieces of information that weren’t reported by whoever they think “stole” their story.

    I hope that doesn’t sound lame or condescending – I’m as competitive as anyone I know, and the most fun I’ve had as a reporter and editor was when I was in cities with two or more strong daily newspapers. But I’m sure there are colleagues both past and present who respect the work you do, and that one story someone else got that you didn’t isn’t going to change that, so I just don’t think it’s something worth worrying about.

  2. Sherry

    @Adam Becker: @Adam Becker: Thank you, Adam. That was a fantastic reply, and I don’t think it sounds lame or condescending. I think it sounds like good, common-sense advice. I also like when there are two or more competitive papers in the area. In fact, that’s part of what I miss about living in Tampa: Reading The Tampa Tribune, St. Petersburg Times, Tampa Bay Times and the alt weekly Creative Loafing, and although they each covered the story, each had its own angle. So, I’m not going to worry too much. I also talked it over with a more veteran editor at my paper about how I wanted to do a magazine article on a subject that ran in our paper, and she seemed to think it was fine since I would have a completely different angle on the topic–focusing more on an organization with roots in another area than what that organization did in this area. For instance, I would have completely different interview subjects.

    OT, what are you doing now?

2 Trackbacks

  1. By sherrymims.com » New blog series on June 8, 2010 at 5:34 am

    […] or she is interesting enough) is a journalist…or copy editor if I can find one. Sometimes —like when I watched the now-defunct “Eastwick — I want to throw something at the television. Other times, like when I reviewed “Veronica […]

  2. By sherrymims.com » Welcome new readers on February 26, 2011 at 8:00 am

    […] “What Eastwick gets right and wrong about journalism” Do not believe what Hollywood tells you about journalism. Mostly. […]

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