Death, a Rainbow & Ethical Journalism

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Yesterday, my little sister, Nancy Jones, posted another of her brilliant and honest posts as a frequent contributor to Daily Kos.  Her writing was centered on her friend Zot Lynn Szurgot.

On September 7, Zot, one of my sister’s nearest and dearest friends was killed on a Georgia highway when a semi ran a stop and plowed into her car. She was just through another good day on site for completing a solar power installation.

I only knew Zot through my sister’s stories, and one brief interaction over facebook when she showed up immediately to be of assistance in a family communication emergency.

And, what a human! I’ve been inspired from the beginning – by her model of completely loving, yet no-nonesense activism; and by her fearless authenticity. Her death is a shock to her loved ones, of course – and it ripples beyond that well into her community and on out to many many of us far away.  You’ll read below some of the amazing ways Zot seems only to keep going. I offer this in deep honor of her teaching, and at the same time in equally high esteem for those who are listening.

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Today the Gainesville Sun published an article written by its editor, Doug Ray. Hundreds of us here in Gainesville and all over the country and even all over the world are seeing the world as a little bit brighter today as a result of reading this article. Here’s the backstory:

Eight days ago on Saturday afternoon, hundreds of people gathered at Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery to bury Zot Lynn Szurgot who had died in a car accident a few days earlier. Zot was a lifelong activist who had made her home in Gainesville decades ago. She was a dear friend of mine and a dear friend of many. Zot fought tirelessly for social and economic justice. It was rare to go to any meeting, protest, government assembly, you name it, and not see Zot there. LGBT, Occupy, labor, environment, human rights, just to name a few, if it involved justice and peace Zot was involved. She was full of compassion, full of wisdom, full of intelligence, and she had the best laugh EVER!

After we finished burying Zot and were making our way back to the parking lot, someone said, “Oh, wow, look at that!” We looked up in the nearly cloudless sky and there was the most vivid rainbow that appeared to be emanating from the very spot where Zot’s body was freshly covered with Florida soil. It was Zot telling us to carry on with courage and that she’d see us on the other side when we got there. At least, that was my interpretation. I’m sure there were others, but all in all it was an awesome sight in the traditional sense of the term and it left a powerful and heartening impression on just about everyone.

It was only later in the evening that we discovered that on Saturday afternoon while we were still filling Zot’s grave at the cemetary the Gainesville Sun had published a piece online about her. The last paragraph in that article referred to a 2012 incident where Zot had been arrested. The charges were subsequently dropped and the record expunged as there was no evidence that Zot had ever done what she was accused of. The reason there was no evidence was because the accusation was a lie fabricated by an angry neighbor who knew that Zot, being transgender, was particularly vulnerable to such charges.

Upon seeing the article, Zot’s sizable community of friends were in an uproar. Many wrote comments on the Sun’s website where the article was posted expressing outrage and demanding an apology. The editor of the paper responded in less that 24 hours by removing the offending paragraph and commenting that he had done so, but it was too little, too late. The offending paragraph was contained in the print version of Sunday’s paper.

On Monday morning, I called Doug Ray, executive editor and general manager of the Gainesville Sun. I left a message saying that I had read an article in the Sun over the weekend that I found deeply disturbing. I figured that would be that, but to Doug’s credit he returned my call. I told him about my concerns and he began down the road of explanation that he had written in the comment when they pulled the paragraph from the website along the lines of, “News obituaries aren’t eulogies and sometimes there are darker sides of people’s lives that are worthy of mentioning.”

I wasn’t having any of that and I cut him off mid-sentence, which is not something I’m real prone to do. I said something like, “Nuh-uh, hold it right there. Let me explain it to you this way. When you and I finish this conversation, I could pick up the phone and call the Gainesville police and say that I’d seen you in my neighborhood molesting children. Then the police could come arrest you and then you could go through a shitload of hassle until finally the charges were dropped and the records expunged as they should be because it was a totally fabricated story. Then you could die four years from now and I could write an article that said you had died and that four years ago you’d been arrested for molesting children in my neighborhood. How do you think your friends and family would feel about that?”

Then I told him that I’d like to see the Sun apologize and asked him to think about that. He said he would and we hung up. Again, I thought that would be that, but it wasn’t. A while later Doug called again and said that he’d met with the editorial board even before he’d spoken with me, that he had been thinking about our conversation, and that he was thinking about a piece that told the story of what happened in 2012 in context, including the context of how Zot was treated as a member of a marginalized group in our society. I was a little bit stunned, but extremely interested in seeing that kind of article written. The next day I and four others met with Doug for a solid hour and gave him plenty of context for his article.

The article was published today. I am appreciative. I believe in giving credit where credit is due, and I want to credit Doug Ray and the Gainesville Sun for practicing journalism in an ethical manner and for owning up to their error and setting the record straight. It’s hard to ask for much more than that, and it’s even harder to expect it. I have long loved living in Gainesville and today I have yet another example of why.

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2 Comments on “Death, a Rainbow & Ethical Journalism

  1. Maybe there’s a message here for all of us to work a little harder at our research before we write. To ask ourselves whether we’re writing something because it’s accurate or because it’s a truthful representation in a truly considered sense. Even if we aren’t trying for sensational, how do we avoid what we’ve become conditioned to hearing as “news?” Obituaries aren’t eulogies but they aren’t reality tv either.

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