By Josephine Stratman
One day last August, I was reporting on a shooting in an auto shop in Hunts Point, in the Bronx. A tow truck driver had been fatally shot in a gunfight after an angry teen customer, unhappy that his car wasn’t fixed and he had to pay a deductible, instigated a gunfight. The teen was charged with manslaughter.
I went to the scene the day after the shooting, hoping to track down witnesses and find more information about the victim’s family and the victim himself.
The article we already had online detailed the gunfight, along with some more context: The victim had just been charged with a fatal hit and run.
I expected to just catch some workers who might give me a vague quote about the victim or confirm a picture — basic information another reporter had already obtained. To my surprise, the first person I found at the auto shop was the victim’s brother.
I introduced myself and expressed my condolences. But as soon as the brother heard what outlet I was with, he completely shut me down.
The brother said another reporter from my outlet who had been there the day before messed up coverage of the shooting, misquoting one auto shop worker and making the victim “out to be something he’s not.”
“That’s not who he was… they made it look like karma,” he told me. “His kids are gonna have to see that for the rest of their lives.” He felt his brother had been misrepresented and inaccurately portrayed by my outlet’s reporting.
He was angry. I talked him down and apologized on behalf of the outlet if there had been any inaccuracies. I asked him to explain the supposed misquote, telling him the only way to get a different side of his brother’s story out there would be for him to share it.
The brother stayed adamant, telling me he couldn’t trust us — couldn’t trust me — after the last article.
As journalists, we have to be aware that our interactions with people are impactful beyond just us. Often, when we report on local or community issues, our sources have never spoken to a reporter. Our everyday is sometimes their once-in-a-lifetime.
And that means our responsibility to the truth applies not just our articles but to our interactions.
In the situation in the Bronx, I’m not sure if there’s a clear right or wrong. Did the other reporter misquote the auto shop worker? I can’t know for sure. It’s possible; mistakes happen.
It’s also possible that the brother was simply hurting from the loss of his brother and lashing out at me as a representative member of the media, who didn’t portray his brother in the most flattering light.
Regardless, the point stands: Mistakes matter. It’s perhaps the most basic rule of journalism. Inaccurate reporting harms reputations, outlets’ credibility and can even put public safety at risk. A 24-hour news cycle and constant competitive pressure can increase the likelihood of mistakes.
Fifty-five percent of Americans say careless reporting is a major factor behind significant mistakes in news stories, according to Poynter. Forty-four percent say they stem from a desire to mislead the public. They also point to ill-intentioned reasons, like the fast pace of breaking news.
Factual errors reinforce the public’s distrust of the media. They heighten the sense that journalism isn’t for public service but personal gain. Over and over, I’ve heard the same sentiment: Reporters don’t care about us, they just want page views and a front-page story.
That day in August, I circled the block and grabbed lunch to give the victim’s brother some time to cool off. After, I went back to the auto shop to try one more time, to ask the brother point blank what was supposedly inaccurate in our story. But he had left.
Mistakes matter not just because they’re factually incorrect, but because they erode the public trust, making it less likely they’ll stick around when we try to correct them.