Nearly 20 years ago, Bridget Hegarty gave me one of the best interviews of my career. This past Christmas Eve, she paid me one of the best compliments of my career.
Often journalists don’t learn about the impact, good or bad, of our reporting on the people we write about. A beat reporter will hear criticism or praise from regular sources. And sometimes we’ll hear some feedback right away. But journalism about personal stories is often a hit-and-run activity. Especially if you move as frequently as I have in my journalism career. I moved to another newspaper less than two years after writing about Bridget, and I never expected to hear from her again.
Generally I sort of presume that good stories have a good impact, if any, on the lives of good people I write about. And maybe I don’t want to know if that’s not true.
I interviewed Bridget for a story the Omaha World-Herald published Nov. 17, 1996. I told the stories of six women who had experienced difficult pregnancy situations, and their decisions to have an abortion or give birth. Bridget decided to have an abortion when she got pregnant after being raped.
The story stands out as one of my best and most challenging in about 15 years as a reporter. A few years ago, I was blogging updated lessons from my old stories. I’d usually post a story, with lessons sprinkled throughout, both timeless journalism lessons about writing and reporting and updated observations about how I might do the story differently today using digital tools and skills.
I had persuaded Bridget and the other women in the pregnancy story to speak for the record back in 1996. But in those pre-Google days, that didn’t mean that a story about abortion or a problem pregnancy might show up whenever anyone searched the internet for your name. So I just used initials of the women when I posted in 2013 on updated lessons from the story about difficult pregnancies.
The post didn’t get much interaction, but now it was there on the web for Google to find. Bridget couldn’t find it looking for her name and searching for your initials is pretty pointless. But this past December, she wanted to find some information about the abortion clinic where she was a patient (and later a staff member). So when she Googled that, she found my post. And she wanted to reconnect, to tell me what the story meant to her.
Soon she found my professional Facebook page. And she messaged me:
You left a permanent imprint in my mind and heart that has never left me since the day you interviewed me that I will always cherish. You helped give what happened to me a voice. It was a voice that I can now use, and do use every day of my life. You gave my voice confidence and reassurance when I thought that part of me was gone forever. I have always wanted to thank you for that!
I fought back tears as I read the message. What Bridget couldn’t know was that she wrote me on a discouraging day, my 24th straight day in the hospital, Dec. 24, and the day I learned I wouldn’t be getting out to spend Christmas at home (I got out the 26th). My stem-cell transplant had been successful, but my blood counts were not yet high enough to release me. I was pouting and petulant when the message arrived, and it immediately picked up my spirits.
Bridget and I messaged back and forth on Facebook and email and eventually chatted by Skype. When I had recovered enough to travel, I met her in Omaha in late February and interviewed her again.
That interview resulted in a story for the Columbia Journalism Review about Bridget’s voice and the journalism ethics principle of giving voice to the voiceless, which posted today.
I don’t have a lot to add here on my personal blog, except thanks to Bridget for her kind words, for sharing her story in 1996 and for today’s story about the personal impact journalism can have.