A Lesson Learned, I Guess

If I’d used these expressions a bit more in my story about a middle school basketball clinic, maybe I could’ve avoided two nasty conversations with the high school’s basketball coaches.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a story. It wasn’t much of a story —  the kind a high school sports writer does when it’s summer and there aren’t any games. A few people in the community are bound to benefit from it, so the reporter does it and then moves on.

It was a recap of a shooting clinic for middle schoolers that took place in McAlester. I showed up, snapped some photos, did a quick interview with the director, then wrote it, all in about a three-hour span.

The clinic’s director brought some NBA-level technology with him to help middle schoolers shoot better. I thought that was pretty unique, as did my editor, so the bulk of my story focused on that.

Two days later, I got a phone call from a head coach of one of McAlester High School’s basketball teams (I won’t say which team, nor say coach’s gender). Coach A, for lack of a name, had heard second-hand that my article had a disparaging quote about MHS basketball in it, and so wanted me to read the quote aloud.

I warned Coach A that asking me to read one quote out of an entire article was as unfair and uninformative as hearing about from others, but the coach insisted. I could’ve refused, but that didn’t occur to me at the time, and it probably would’ve come off as cowardly. So I read the quote aloud.

Coach A flipped out on me, asking if I’d bothered to look up MHS’s record last season before printing a quote that called the program “bad.” I didn’t and the coach flipped out further. I barely got in a dozen words before the coach hung up on me.

It’s true, I didn’t research that quote, because it didn’t seem necessary when I used it. They weren’t my words, they were the director’s. They were his reason for offering this clinic, and a reporter always has to answer the “why” of a situation or event. His reason had to be in there.

I suppose I could’ve made it clearer these were his opinions only, not a commentary by the paper, but that never occurred to me. It never occurred to my editor, who approved the content, either. I write that not to defer blame, but to show that multiple interpretations of the content are possible.

To be clear: I’m not sorry I used the quote. And even if I had researched the team, putting in data that refutes the director’s words would basically be calling him a liar. There’s a place for that in journalism, but this particular mini-feature absolutely wasn’t such a place.

The next day, the other MHS team’s coach called me to basically discuss the same thing. Having taken a half-hour of abuse from Coach A, I knew what Coach B’s problems would be. I said I understood how such a quote could be taken as an attack, but that absolutely wasn’t my intention. I explained myself, acknowledged how this quote could’ve been used differently (not taken out, mind you), and offered the coach a chance to respond in the paper by allowing me to do a feature on what the team is up to.

Unfortunately, Coach B’s team had just wrapped for the summer, so there wasn’t anything to write about as a response. But Coach B seemed satisfied that the coach’s complaints had been understood, and I thought we parted on decent terms.

Believing the strategy that had worked so well with Coach B would also smooth things over with Coach A, I sent an email on my first day back from the weekend. I wrote basically the same thing I told Coach B, making clear my reasons for using the quote without apologizing for them, acknowledging the ways the quote could be misinterpreted, and offering a way to respond. I spent a lot of time crafting that email, and I felt good when clicked “Send.”

Coach A emailed me back a day later. Basically, the coach told me to fuck off. I have no idea how that coach will treat me when basketball season starts.

I’m still not sorry for using that quote, and no one at my paper has told me I did anything wrong. But this was the first (of many, in all likelihood) article I’ve ever written that resulted in such a negative backlash. That the backlash came from people not directly related to the story made it even more surprising and, to a lesser extent, humiliating. The clinic director also got mad at me, but he has no one to blame but himself.

If I learned anything, it’s that I’m still learning when to paraphrase and when to quote. I think the phrase “he said” without a quote looks boring, and overusing it makes a story seem like it’s just some dude standing and talking, which sports usually aren’t. But anything not directly attributed to a person by process of elimination becomes an opinion by the reporter.

I guess the lesson is that if you’re going to use a quote, at least consider all the ways the quote could be taken. That doesn’t mean don’t use it — just be prepared for the response. And if you’re going to paraphrase a provocative statement, more attribution is always better.

I just wish I could’ve learned this lesson without getting screamed at… twice.

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