2018 Senior Reflections: The Stories I Never Wanted to Write

Ayushi Agarwal, Photo Editor

The Stories I Never Wanted to Write

By Julia Munslow

I have never been less excited to write a story than I was two summers ago during a hot, humid Fourth of July weekend.

I was working as a PR intern when I woke up to multiple missed messages from my editor about a fatal attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that had left two Emory students dead. He assigned me the obituary, and I sat alone in a sublet and started calling students who knew them.

The assignment prompted my most difficult interview during my time at The Emory Wheel. I had reached one student who knew both of them, and, as she recounted story after story, I scrawled notes, trying to keep up. About half an hour into the interview, her voice cracked, and she started crying.

Horrified, I offered to stop the interview, staring down at the black dinner table. I was 20 years old and didn’t know what to say to someone whose friends had just been killed in a terrorist attack. No, she said, insisting she wanted to keep going.

If she could, I could. Or, at least, I felt I had to. I picked up my pen. We kept going. After publication, she thanked me for telling her friends’ stories.

As I concluded my term as editor, people asked me why I spent four years covering stories like that one — stories that are difficult for both source and reporter. The truth is, when I first arrived on campus, I had planned to apply to the business school, doubtful of the value of an English degree in an economy recovering from a financial crisis. But if I have learned anything at Emory, it is that stories that reveal the truth matter.

For instance, this sentence is no longer surprising: In response to coverage of misconduct allegations in a contentious election, the president threatened legal action against a newspaper.

That’s a statement that describes something that’s happened more than once under the current federal administration. The U.S. president has mocked major news organizations, attempted to dismantle their credibility and threatened to sue.

But that statement also applies to one of Emory’s own: the undergraduate student government president.

This past month, a man claiming to represent the recently-elected Student Government Association (SGA) President Dwight Ma (17Ox, 19C) called the Wheel’s editor-in-chief and executive editor to threaten legal action against them for the Wheel’s coverage of electoral misconduct allegations. Ma has rescinded his threat, but the fact that even thought to make it stands.

When both the president of the United States and the president of Emory’s undergraduate student body lambast journalists who are only doing their jobs, I am more compelled than ever to champion the freedom and responsibility of the press to hold those in positions of power to account.

Some have railed against the Wheel’s coverage of the election, calling it everything from unfair to unethical to, more recently, fake news. But as the newspaper of record, the Wheel isn’t a publicity machine; it does not exist to churn out stories that illuminate only the prettiest parts of Emory. Journalists report in service to the communities they cover.

Here’s the open secret. The Wheel, like any other newspaper, follows a simple reporting creed: Tell the truth.

Fair, ethical standards of journalism drive coverage. But that means giving all sides the chance to speak — even the ugly ones, even the ones that reveal people doing wrong.

It’s concerning when students repeatedly demonstrate their misunderstanding of the basic function of a newspaper, asking to reword coverage in favor of their group or themselves or to remove reporting that portrays them or their group in a negative light for fear of repercussions.

When an Emory student can’t distinguish an independent news source from a tightly-controlled PR statement or paid advertisement, they are sorely lacking a basic understanding of media. To evaluate a news source is to distinguish fact from fiction, to understand the nature of evidence. And a student body president ought to have a stronger understanding of journalism than one that has him rely on a law meant to regulate pornography and obscenities in his attempts to sue the newspaper that covers him.

Misinformation spreads with the click of a button. Today, media literacy can be a matter of life or death. Just look to the reports of misinformation across online platforms during the 2016 presidential election; the rumors spread about alleged perpetrators of mass shootings; or the man who shot up a pizza joint because of false reports of Hillary Clinton’s involvement in a child sex ring.

During my term as editor-in-chief, I thought back often to that humid, terrible weekend in July — that difficult interview — whenever we had an emotionally draining story to tackle or whenever someone was courageous enough to say something about what they most feared, or most loved. I thought about the U.S. president when an admissions staffer announced to a group of Emory Student Ambassadors that the Wheel was “fake news.” I thought about the Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of Harvey Weinstein whenever we fought for access to public information and had to square off against people who had power for those who had none.

As graduation approaches, I’m grateful that Emory gave me a brilliant creative writing program and English department (though with too few journalism classes or professors), kind friends and tremendous mentors. I’m glad that I spent so many late nights in the fourth-floor offices, and I’m honored to have worked with people who reported tirelessly, rewrote stories an hour before deadline and drank too many cups of coffee with me.

It’s thanks to the Wheel that I am ready to write the stories I don’t want to write. To make the call to interview someone who lost a friend. To run toward a protest, pen and camera in hand.  

I am certain that the truth matters.

And to my freshman self who almost went to business school: Yes, you made the right choice. A great story can move the world.

Julia Munslow is from Coventry, R.I., and served as the Wheel’s 2017-2018 editor-in-chief. She will be a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant for 2018-2019 in Malaysia.