Writing my wrong: On journalistic accountability and responsibility

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“Don’t judge a book by its cover” — the fatal flaw of literature selection — is something I have always struggled with. Books have covers for a reason, because they give you just a little hint of what’s inside and allow you to make decisions accordingly.

When I first started writing for The Daily Californian, I thought that logic applied here too, specifically to arts and entertainment criticism. When we take a pitch for a concert, album, TV show, book or art exhibit, we usually don’t know much about that artist. We are familiar and do research, but we are not experts or lifelong fans, in a way we cannot be — we must remain objective. To a certain extent, we have to judge books by their covers.

We go into these experiences somewhat blind, having to use our two-hour experience watching a film or listening to a band as our sole immersion into that artist’s work. What this unavoidably leads to is a sort of “judging a book by its cover” phenomenon. Especially with fast turnaround times for newly released TV shows and albums, we are forced to go with our gut and write about the first impression we had of the art, with not much time to process or decompress.

So what happens when we miss something? It’s inevitable really. Sometimes it’s just a bit of background on a song or the historical context for a movie. But sometimes it’s really big, and suddenly our review seems shallow, incomplete, ignorant. By the time we realize our blind spot, it’s too late, the paper is printed and our words are out there. Oops.

This happened to me very early in my time at the Daily Cal, when I was completely new to the arts reporting world. I saw a pitch to review a TV adaptation of a book I had read when I was in middle school. Excited, I took the pitch and binged watched the show in two days. I liked it. It wasn’t as good as the book, but still OK, so I wrote my review praising the show and it was published.

A few weeks later, my roommate decided to watch the show. As she slowly worked her way through it, other reviews started coming out, and I realized I had missed something — something big.

“Holy shit” — my roommate paused Netflix and looked up at me from the bottom bunk. “Is this show really romanticizing suicide right now? What the hell?”

In that moment, it hit me: It was. “13 Reasons Why” completely and utterly romanticized suicide and showcased many aspects of depression that left mental health experts horrified. For all its use of severe mental health issues, the show never once even mentions the various resources for these conditions. We hear nothing about therapy, medication or any solution other than death.

The show is completely silent on the topic of mental health, and sadly, so was my review.

I should have seen it. Though I do not suffer from depression, I have friends who have and do, and I have learned what it is like to struggle to support someone who feels like their life isn’t worth living. My mom is a therapist, specializing in youth and family therapy, so mental health is discussed often in our household — yet I still completely missed it.

After discussing it in depth with my roommate, my first response was to stand by my review. My words were out there and I could not change them — I thought I would be a hypocrite if I disagreed with myself. Still, it kept me up at night; how could I miss something that important and problematic? To think I complimented a show that made it seem like death was the only option made me sick to my stomach, yet I did nothing about this guilt. I just didn’t know what to do.

Almost six months later, I was sitting in the office, talking to our assistant editor about her own similar experience, and she answered the question I had been pondering since that review.

“You write about it.”

So here I am. Yes, I should have written this the minute I realized my error — tried to reconcile the immediate feelings I had with the later reaction that set in a few weeks later. But I didn’t. It took me reading something that discussed mental health the right way to learn my mistake.

Just because our job is to quickly analyze and critique does not mean ignorance is an excuse. “Oops” is not an OK reaction. No matter the deadline, we must take the time to process, discuss, research and understand. We must familiarize ourselves with things we do not know and seek to recognize narratives different than ours.

Though it may be OK in a bookstore, judging books, TV shows, movies and albums by their covers is not acceptable for arts critics. We will still have our quick turnarounds, but we cannot simply publish our first reactions. When we make a mistake, we cannot simply stand by our words; we must speak up and address the oversight.

We are writers — we might not always be right, but we must always write.

Contact Rebecca Gerny at [email protected].