Risk and Reward: Why I’m Ashamed of My Brief Moment of Fame

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A few years ago a popular Christian publication asked me to write an article based on data they obtained from another Christian organization. The managing editor, whom I had worked with before, supplied me with the statistics that prompted the idea, and I ran with it. I interviewed experts, obtained great quotes, put it all together, and voila! I submitted the article without a second thought.

After all, I may have been a relatively young freelancer, but I had written dozens of articles; I had no reason to think this one would be different.

The first thing I failed to consider was the controversial nature of this piece. That alone would attract attention. The second thing I failed to consider was that this article cited statistics that, thus far, did not exist anywhere online. The most important thing I didn't realize, and therefore could not consider, was that the statistics upon which my entire article hinged were, how should I say this, um...iffy. At best. But I didn't know that yet.

As it turns out, the data had been extrapolated from a study designed to determine something completely different. And so, after closer examination, the sample size was too small to legitimately make the claims I had clearly and consistently made. But like I said, I didn't know that yet.

Then things started getting interesting. The article was published, and immediately it attracted a lot of attention on social media—more than anything I'd published previously. All of a sudden, people wanted to talk to me. This seemed absurd. I hadn’t conducted the research; I had merely reported it. But that research supposedly offered new information, and I was the first to break the naturally, apparently, people wanted to talk to me.

A reporter from a major Christian news outlet interviewed me and then ran an article on my article, even though I tried to tell her I was merely a journalist like her, not an expert. Then I got an email from a syndicated radio program; they wanted to interview me on the air. I said the same thing I told the reporter: "I'm just a journalist, not an expert." They insisted on doing the interview anyway, and I agreed.

Since I didn't have a landline, I sat in my friend's office and awaited the call for what would have been my first "on air" interview. But the call never came. Neither did an explanation from the show's producer. Looking back, I'm grateful for that. A radio interview could have gotten ugly. In fact, it may have made me look like a bigger fraud than I actually was. Had I been forced to account for the weak statistics I had cited so boldly, my live answer would have been a bewildered and bashful shrug—a response that’s even less sufficient on the radio.

This Is (Not) My Moment

While social media was still abuzz with the sensational claims my article made, a few responsible Christian leaders did what I should have done in the first place: examine the data. And they found it woefully lacking. In the days that followed, I sat at my laptop and watched with horror as more responses cropped up online. The sources didn't directly attack me, but they definitely included sharp words about what they perceived to be misleading and irresponsible.

A colleague emailed me an article written by a well-respected Christian pastor/author and said, "Uh oh, so-and-so is after you." I quickly read "so-and-so"'s opinion and wanted to offer a rebuttal—a defense, a justification, something. But I had none to offer; he was absolutely right. I had not intentionally misled anyone, but upon reviewing the data, now too late, even I couldn’t justify the conclusions my article suggested.


When I first accepted the assignment (and even after turning it in), I never thought, This is my moment. Not even briefly. And yet, all of a sudden, it had been. For a few short days, I was thrust—inexplicably—into a spotlight. Honestly, I was proud of my work on that piece—or at least my work on the writing of it. It was articulate, clear, engaging. But it was based on weak research that I hadn't bothered to investigate.

For the most part, I was able to slink back into obscurity, never forced to account for "hyping bad stats." Had I been forced to comment, I could’ve claimed, legitimately, that it was unintentional, that I simply hadn't realized it was necessary to double-check those stats. But even when it's true, claiming ignorance does little for one's credibility. I might not have been guilty of willfully misleading anyone, but such confessions only admit incompetence or the shaky work of an amateur.

As a young journalist, I should have known better. And yet, I didn't. Like so many lessons, this is one I learned the hard way.


Risk and Reward

Early in every working life, a special transition occurs before you know how to avoid mistakes, yet after you’ve made them. Like when you first rode a bike without training wheels. You knew enough to be confident, yet too little to avoid losing skin from your knee. The transition is special because it marks a movement from novice to know-how, from apprenticeship to autonomy. Or, as we might say, from young to young professional.

The High Calling recognizes that everyone—moms, accountants, geologists—need vocational growth, so we share past experiences and tell lessons from the future. But what about the early days when we simply got out there and did it?

In the series, Risk and Reward, we ask, “How did I learn so much in so little time?” Join us and be inspired all over again.

Image by Alex RF. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.