(Before I start ... I know all the parties involved in this story, either first or second hand. Tim Graham's a friend of mine. My sister works at the Buffalo News, so I am friends with or know pretty much that entire sports department. I've never met Kent Babb, but one of my best friends worked with him for a number of years and is friends with him. And both stories are worth a read, because they are fantastically done. I don't believe this has affected my opinion on this case. But it may have. And I want you to know about these relationships, so you can make your own judgments.)
Ego isn't necessarily a bad thing.
A healthy ego is a part of any journalists' tool box. You have to believe that you (and you alone) can find the story. You have to believe that you can get the source to talk, that you can find the documents or data that support a claim, that you can write the story better than anyone else. You have to have a strong belief in yourself and your talent, or you're never going to ask a tough question, or write a tough sentence.
But ego in journalism can also be a bad thing. It can lead reporters to cling to outdated work routines, role conceptualizations and other beliefs. It can lead them to believe that their work is more important than informing the readers.
Such is the case here, in this story from Deadspin today. It details how two reporters (Tim Graham and Kent Babb) went to speak with the mother of the man killed 13 years ago that led to Ray Lewis' arrest and eventual guilty plea to obstruction of justice. Both reporters were seeking to accompany Priscilla Lollar on her first trip to her son's grave.
I get where Babb's coming from. I do. That's your instinct as a reporter - get the story first. Get it before anybody else. Do whatever you can/have to to do so. Sometimes, being second on a story has an advantage, because if you know someone else is out there ahead of you, you step up your efforts (in the St. Bonaventure welding story, I knew Mike Harrington in Buffalo was all over this. So it pushed me to get in touch with Jamil Terrel's junior college coach, who talked to me first and blew the story up.) And in a way, I know that no reporter or editor wants a "me too" story.
But here's the first thing: That instinct serves you well in the case of breaking news. If you're tracking a scandal, yes, all is fair in love and breaking news. But this wasn't a scandal. This was a feature story. This was shining a light on a corner that too many in the mainstream sports media are ignoring because it doesn't fit with their narrative and their boy. A light that could easily be shined more than once.
Babb's behavior here feels unseemly, more than a little wrong. There was no need to rush to tell Priscilla Lollar's story. This is not breaking news. It's a feature story. This quote troubled me, from Babb in Deadspin:
"In my mind, the race to the house was on."
Why? Why was there a race? This was a feature story - an important one, but a feature story. There was no breaking news here. There was no document that was going to be destroyed, no team of lawyers waiting to jump in and cover up for the accused party. This was a woman who had her son murdered. There was no race, except for reportorial ego. It was the sense that "there's a story, and I need to be the one to tell it." rather than "there's a story and it needs to be told."
Here's the thing: If Babb had written a story a week later as planned, it could have been just as powerful. There's nothing wrong with a line that says "This was just her second trip to her son's grave. The first came last week." The story isn't the visit to the grave. The story is her journey, her emotions.
In a way, rushing to be first on a story where there was no need to rush to be first turned Lollar's grief and story into a prop.
The story shouldn't have been about which reporter was there first, who told the story first or who told the story better.
The story was, and is, about Priscilla Lollar, the depth of her grief, the unanswered questions she lives with every day.