The worst day


The role of journalists when Im the last person you want to talk to.

Oftentimes journalists see their subjects on their worst days.

There have been times when some of you reading this have picked up your phone to hear my voice on the other end. It was your worst day, worst week or, for that matter, worst year. You had just endured a night of rioting in Ferguson, Missouri; Superstorm Sandy had wrecked the world around you; you narrowly missed the violence unleashed at the finish line of the Boston marathon; or a disgruntled client threatened to gun down your clinic with an AK-47.

The role of journalists on those “bad” days was on our mind on a recent morning here at dvm360 as we huddled up a mere two hours from where student protests at the University of Missouri were captivating international attention. The conversation was sparked by the news that certain faculty members tried to block a student of the Missouri School of Journalism and other credentialed members of the press from access to a public, newsworthy event.

As a proud graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, I felt my spine stiffen as an unconscious dissertation on the role of media spewed from me. As a veteran journalist who spent a decade of her career in mainstream print news, I understand that the principles we hold as paramount as professional journalists may be regarded as vintage relics in an era when my mom with a camera phone becomes “the media” by posting to the Internet and the 24-hour “choose your own adventure” TV news cycle is essentially 24 hours of commentary.

Professional journalists stand as society's witnesses to document the first version of history, and we do so objectively and truthfully, bound legally and ethically to the tenets of our profession. Author Chinua Achebe said, “Story explains society to itself.” It's the journalist's job to present society's story-when it's uncomfortable, controversial and even dangerous-because that job is essential to public understanding and to democratic society.

The good in bad days

The fact of the matter is, “bad” news is news. Bad things happen and reporting on them serves the public and hopefully promotes understanding. And bad news is often compelling because as humans our humanity-or lack of it-is often revealed when times are tough.

So, for those of you who have answered my call on your worst day, you know: If it's the right time, we talk. And depending on the circumstances, we may talk for an hour or for a brief minute. If needed, I call back-when there aren't a million things to be done, when you've had time to process.

You may have been surprised at how I just kept calling back-even to talk for just another minute or two, or just to ask one more question. The thing is, when it comes to worst days, as a journalist, as a member of a profession that absolutely requires a social conscience, I really do care about telling your story-and telling it right-and telling it in a way that truly reflects who you are and your circumstance.

Dianne Bracelin, center, and the team at Scroggins Animal Hospital in Moore, Oklahoma.When it came to Dianne Bracelin, the receptionist at Scroggins Animal Hospital in Moore, Oklahoma, we talked every day for days on end. From a seconds-long conversation during the first day of chaos after the deadly EF-5 tornado devastated the town, to a quick check-in the next day and the day following. Each call, Dianne shared updates and stories. We talked enough that she knew my voice when I'd call. Eventually, she offered me her cell number and we talked for an hour or more while she smoked cigarettes on her back patio after another exhausting post-tragedy workday. She passed my number on to her coworkers and I talked several times with them as well. The stories they shared with me-trusted with me-were ones of tragedy, but also of their individual resilience and strength and that of their clinic family as well. I was honored to tell the story of their worst day.

Don't hang up

And for some of you, who hear my voice on your voice mail or see my email requesting an interview and delete it (or who have literally threatened that I'd regret digging into a story you're involved in-you know who you are), I get it. You're a reality show veterinarian slapped with yet another administrative complaint and you just don't want to talk about it. You're a veterinary board vice president embattled in an ugly, controversial standoff with your state's nonprofit clinics and “the media” is the enemy. I get it. But I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't ask you the questions that need to be asked and offer you the opportunity to share your perspective, even on your worst day, and when you find me most annoying.

For those of you I've spoken to over the years, I know our conversations have built trust. Some of us are now on a first-name basis; we check in with each other from time to time. Trust is the lifeblood of my profession, just as it is in yours.

So from a journalist, whose profession has been devalued, criticized and is so often misunderstood (maybe that sounds familiar, huh?), I hope you'll consider sharing your story with me-or any deserving journalist-even on your worst day.

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