The Missouri School of Journalism requires all of its graduates to write an essay about journalism ethics and principles. This is mine.
Pam told me she was devastated.
She was popping in and out of the room where they kept the lottery tickets and the big cash register. Guys from the scrapyard in town were lining up at the counter to get their checks cashed, and a few children loitered by the front door, hoping Pam would offer them some free candy. When there was a lull in customers, she invited me into the room. I hadn’t finished asking her how she was doing before she was crying.
“I tell you, this is the toughest thing,” she said. “You’ll have to forgive me a little bit.”
Pam was the first person I met when I went to the Lipari Brothers Thriftway on the east side of Kansas City. Her husband owned the store, and they had decided together to close the store after 58 years in business. She was obviously emotional about the decision, and she told me how worried she was about the community — Thriftway was the only grocery in the area, and Pam said some customers would “buy” food with a promise to pay for it later when they had the money. She talked about how she wished she could call every business nearby and ask them to look out for her customers in her absence.
She introduced me to Mary, who had been there for 46 years, and to her husband, John Lipari, who was quietly struggling too — his first day at Thriftway had been 50 years ago, when he was 10 years old. I spent two hours with Pam, Mary, John and their store.
When I wrote the story, the first character I introduced was Pam. I wrote the story as I’d experienced it. I worked hard to recreate the emotion of the store, and I was proud of the story I wrote. It was published on the business front of the Kansas City Star on Sunday, and I woke up that day to a voicemail from a veteran business reporter, Kevin, saying he teared up reading it. I was touched and, honestly, pretty ecstatic — I felt like I had done the Liparis justice with the story, and I still think it’s some of my best writing.
I was at the Star from early June until late July. I wrote about the Liparis in the middle of June, and, as with most stories, after it published I moved on. But I lingered a little, soaking in the occasional phone call I would get from a reader who wanted to talk about their experiences at the store. It felt good to hear that I was doing well.
The phone calls tapered off within a few days. I worked on other stories. And then almost three weeks later, I got a call from John Lipari’s sister.
“Hi Molly,” she sighed. “Well, you got a lot of things wrong in your story.” My stomach dropped to the floor. She said she wasn’t angry. She said she had been trying to find the time to call me for weeks, and had finally had a moment. She said my story had made her dad cry, and not for the same reasons as it did for Kevin. He cried because it made him feel invisible.
I hadn’t reached out to anyone who wasn’t at the store that day — including its original owner. I always ask sources if they know of other people to reach out to, had I forgotten to this time? We had talked about John Lipari, Sr., and an old photo of him and his brothers ran with the story online, but he wasn’t mentioned in the body of the story.
As we talked, I realized John’s sister’s problem wasn’t really with me — it was with Pam. She accused her of hogging the spotlight and told me Pam didn’t really spend as much time at the store as she claimed to. Nothing in the story was factually inaccurate, she said, but the focus was off. I felt manipulated and uncomfortable in the middle of their family feud.
I asked John’s sister what I could do. She felt that the damage was already done — despite her dad’s inclusion in an online photo gallery, he wasn’t in print, and that was what he and most of his friends read. Did she want me to write another story? Update the story? I told her I would be happy to talk to John, Sr., and write something else if my editor OK’d it. I made sure she had my number and email, and she told me she would talk to her dad and get back to me.
I never heard from her again. Selfishly, I was relieved — I didn’t want anything to tarnish my story. But it wasn’t my story, not really. It was the Lipari’s. And I didn’t do some of them justice. I still think about John, Sr., opening up the Star, reading my story, and feeling like no one cared about him and his life’s work. I should have called him. I should have done better by him, even if his son and daughter-in-law wouldn’t.
In The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write that a journalist’s first obligation is to the truth. But whose truth? Our obligation to the truth is our most unshakeable principle, but it’s also the most confusing. Kovach and Rosenstiel cite a Pew Research study in which 100 percent of polled journalists answered that their paramount concern was “getting the facts right.” I had the facts right, but that doesn’t mean that I offered a comprehensive reality. “Truth, it seems, is too complicated for us to pursue,” they write. “Or perhaps it doesn’t even exist, since we are all subjective individuals. These are interesting arguments, maybe, on some philosophical level, even valid. But where does that leave journalism?”
It left me feeling like a failure. But maybe I wasn’t too terrible, as this seems to be a problem many journalists struggle with — finding an absolute truth is nearly impossible. What was Pam’s truth was not her father-in-law’s. But does that invalidate her version of the truth? “All of these truths — even the laws of science — are subject to revision, but we operate by them in the meantime because they are necessary and they work,” write Kovach and Rosenstiel. Pam’s truth was the truth of the Lipari Brothers Thriftway in the summer of 2014. I set out to write a story about the closing of the store, and hers was the truth that mattered in that moment.
Then-managing editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller, also addresses this issue of searching for the best version of the truth. He once said of journalists’ purpose: “Whether true objectivity is ever possible, I don’t think that’s what we’re here for. … We strive for coverage that aims as much as possible to present the reader with enough information to make up his or her own mind. That’s our fine ideal.”
Had I reported the story more thoroughly, I would have called John, Sr. Sometimes I wish I had. But the angle of the story was the store’s closing, and that blinded me to some important sources. My job was not to write a touching farewell to the store and honor its history — my job was to write about a failing grocery store in a hurting neighborhood in the here and now. Writing about the Liparis taught me to think carefully about the fluidity and nuance of truth, and how even a factually correct story can still read as incomplete to some.