Journalists tend to avoid that because it can hurt their credibility. How would people know if the journalist just made something up?
But when we were putting together our in-depth look at the war on drugs this past fall, I found a local high school student who was willing to talk about his struggle with prescription drug abuse. The only catch was, he didn’t want to use his real name. He hadn’t even told his parents about his past addiction.
I came up with a fake name, Ross, and used it throughout the story. Everything else in the story was real: the student made good grades, held leadership positions and got hooked on pain meds following an accident where he broke his arm.
About a week later, I got an email from a grandfather who said his grandson was named Ross, was recently inducted into the National Honor Society and spent several months last year with a broken left arm. He fit the description almost perfectly, except for the drug use.
What are the chances?
Actually, as my executive editor pointed out, the real “Ross” should have been the last person people expected to be the one in the story. After all, we said at the beginning of the article that “Ross” was a fictitious name. All the “Rosses” in Wise County were off the hook.
And I was reminded again why I and most journalists hate using fake names.
The drug feature was one of the most memorable stories I reported on this past year. Another one was a story I wrote for our Justin newspaper where I interviewed a Justin police officer who was shot in the line of duty last year and returned to work this year. During the incident, the officer returned fire and killed the suspect, who had also shot two of his family members.
I was reminded of the story as I watched the coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting and the Christmas Eve shooting in Webster, N.Y, where a gunman set fire to a home and then shot and killed two firefighters who responded.
The national discussion on guns is sure to continue well into 2013 if not beyond. There will be no easy answers, but as I wrote at the time of the Justin officer’s story, these instances serve to remind us of the risks and sacrifices that our first responders make every day.
My prayer is that our community will not have to deal with such tragedies in the coming year.
Brian Knox is the Messenger’s special project manager.