Why the media should tell the truth (the whole truth and nothing but the truth)

I was once a young, outspoken feminist. And, as such, I was incensed when the student union at San Francisco State University was showing a movie in the dining hall that depicted extreme violence against women. It was Halloween, and it was a low budget horror flick. No problem with that, but the scene I walked in on happened to be one where a deranged Santa Claus was brutally dragging a beautiful, naked woman across the floor. He lifted the woman and impaled her limp body on reindeer antlers. This was not OK. The laughter of the crowd was not OK. 

“Stop the movie!” My friend who was visiting me at the campus and I both stood up and yelled. 

Girl, we shut it down. It was an electric moment that was followed by days of, “way to go!” and “how dare you, you oversensitive bitch.” The San Diego Union got wind of the situation and sent a reporter out to interview me, which was exciting. I had never met a real journalist before and I took it very seriously. 

The problem - the reporter didn’t just misquote me, she made stuff up. 

When asked why I created a fuss, I distinctly remember giving her my reasons. This movie clearly depicted misogynistic sexual savagery (made worse by the audience finding it comical), women should not be subjected to this form of entertainment without consent, and so on and so forth. That horse I was riding was very high, I’m sure.

I was gobsmacked when the story ran. Unfortunately I don’t have a copy of the paper anymore and can’t find it online (this was pre-internet, so it might be on microfiche somewhere) but I distinctly remember something like this was written: 

Erica Sandberg, a sophomore, was upset when a horror movie was shown in the student union dining hall. “There were mothers and children present,” says Sandberg. “It was not appropriate for them to see a naked lady!”

What the hell? That’s not what I said. At all. I never mentioned moms or kids, and didn’t object to nudity (no prude was I, especially as an art major who did her share of  clothes-free modeling for painting classes.)

Why the reporter invented a statement I’ll never know for sure, but I suspect it gave the piece extra flavor. Maybe it made me more sympathetic to the general readership or it aligned with her personal perspective. Whatever the motivation, it was a total fabrication, and shocking to me at the time. 

It’s terrible to not trust media outlets or reporters, especially those you once respected, but it’s no longer a surprise when it happens. Journalists, producers, and editors should never add or subtract to a story to make it sound juicier or prove a preconceived premise. When they do, their credibility is shot. Repairing a reputation takes time, and is not always possible. 

Today, I am a writer and reporter, and often think about the day I picked up the newspaper to find those alien words attributed to me. Apart from being a stickler for accuracy, the “but won’t somebody please think of the children?!” memory is enough to keep me tightly bound to the truth, even if it blows the entire story into a new direction. 

For the record, I’m still an outspoken feminist and would probably yell, “stop the movie!” should the need arise.