PARTING SHOT: The importance of a comma

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Margaret Mason was a Life Editor for the 127th term of The Cavalier Daily.

Richard Dizon | Cavalier Daily

Picture this: You are a first-year writer for The Cavalier Daily’s life section, overexcited to be at the University and involved in the paper. You were just published for the first time, and feel as though you are bound to be the Rory Gilmore of The Cavalier Daily. Logging into your University email, your heart suddenly drops when you see a message from a stranger — you’ve just received your first hate-mail.

As a stranger calls to attention an error in your article, it stings in an unexpected way when she writes that you, “lack responsible writing,” and demands an, “apology to the subject of your article.” Placing a comma in the wrong place, first-year-me was 90,000 meals short of the impressive number a University student provided for those in need. In the face of this error, there’s an immediate, visceral reaction to deny any wrongdoing on your part and place the blame on any external source imaginable.

The thing is, her email — although an incredibly terse way to address an 18-year-old college reporter — was right. Bulldozing my way through the article like it was just a means to the end of getting published, I disrespected and discredited someone else’s hard work. My own carelessness, although unintentional, made someone else feel less appreciated than deserved.

For the 5,000 people reading this — oops, I mean five — you are probably waiting for me to get to the point with this anecdote. What I learned from this jarring interaction was the importance of truly paying attention to others. A lesson often lost in the bustling life of a University student, nothing reinforced this more for me than my time on The Cavalier Daily.

Surrounded by writers who took careful time and precision in each and every article, I was constantly reminded how special our peers are and the quality of writing necessary to capture their talent. Staffers painstakingly type up interview notes and triple-check facts to ensure the news is accurate — sometimes holding a story instead of risking printing falsities. The level of journalistic integrity on The Cavalier Daily constantly challenged me to become a better writer, and ensure my subjects received my best efforts insteaded of the half-hearted attempt of my first article.

Journalistic integrity, however, goes beyond just reporting the truth. In unexpected ways, the practices of The Cavalier Daily not only taught me how to treat article subjects but how to treat other human beings. Just like an article is not a means to getting published, your smart lab partner in statistics is not a means to a good grade. The best relationships deserve an undivided attention, as do the best stories.

It is easy to disregard others and not give away our time when we have an assignment due, two midterms, an article due, and six club meetings looming in the week ahead. But a stressful course load and busy extracurricular schedule is not an excuse to be any less decent. Amid the chaos, we cannot forget about paying attention to our peers.

In my time on the paper, The Cavalier Daily forced me to get over myself and look instead at what I can do to celebrate others. As insulting as my initial hate-mail was, four years later I am able to thank the writer for checking my motivations. After reporting for the life section with this in mind since my first year, I’m lucky to have met so many spectacular, interesting people.

Teaching me in more ways than one, my fellow Cavalier Daily staffers not only set the standard for journalistic integrity but also for basic human integrity. Even at 1 a.m. on a print night, with research papers and exams and various assignments due the next day, editors and writers still were focused and kind — working pleasantly with one another to put the best possible paper in the hands of students the next morning. The basement of Newcomb Hall ebbed and flowed every Sunday and Wednesday night with the understanding that we owed this level of journalism to the student body.

Setting my Cavalier Daily hat down, I’m flattered and honored to have been included in this mission. Turning brainstorming meetings and late nights in the office into words which might mean something to someone, I am forever in awe of my fellow staffers. To everyone who taught me these lessons, I’m eternally grateful. Here’s to forever being incredibly careful about commas, and always picking up a print edition.

Margaret Mason was a Life Editor for the 127th term of The Cavalier Daily.

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