A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Q&A: Emily Sweeney, Boston Globe reporter

By Quill

Q: How long have you been an SPJ member:

A: I joined SPJ in 1999. Right now, I’m serving as interim president of the New England Pro SPJ chapter.

Q: Where did you get your journalism training?

A: Northeastern University. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1998.

Q: Your job duties aren’t exactly extreme, but your lifestyle is. How do you balance the two?

A: I’ve never found my life outside of work to clash with my role as a journalist. Whenever I participate in performance art or act in films, I prefer using my nickname — Spikey Em. But I’m always a journalist, always looking for stuff to write about.

I’ve found so many sources and story ideas from being out and about, and being involved in the local club scene/independent film scene/music scene. I’ve met some amazing people at shows, clubs and parties. Many of them turned out to be great tipsters and sources for story ideas.

Q: How do you dress at work? Have you ever caught flack from co-workers or sources because of your attire?

A: I dress differently every day. Sometimes I wear collared shirts and ties, and I love wearing bow ties and scally caps too. Or I’ll wear trousers with all kinds of zippers and straps. Other days I’ll bust out my pinstriped pants. Right now my favorite article of clothing is a zip-up hooded sweatshirt that says “BOSTON” across the front.

I’ve never found my style to be a problem on the job. Honestly, it’s only helped me. Sometimes my spiky hairdo and spiked belt is a good icebreaker for conversations. In some weird way, I think it puts people at ease. And if anyone ever wonders about my journalistic abilities, I always prove myself by writing an accurate story.

I’ve always dressed a bit differently from other people. I did try to tone it down in my first year on the job at a small weekly paper. But I do a better job when I feel comfortable. I did very well at each weekly newspaper I worked for, and as a result, my bosses didn’t care how I dressed.

At the Globe, the way I dress has never been an issue. One time a colleague suggested I try wearing traditional office attire more often, because he felt my freakiness might impede me from getting a promotion. But the way I see it, I’ve been able to interview so many kids, politicians, all kinds of people – without ever having a problem.

I think newsrooms should reflect the population at large. If someone judges me by my appearance, sure, they might think I’m a hoodlum. If anything, I hope the way I dress makes them think twice before stereotyping other people.

Q: How many tattoos and piercings do you have?

A: Six tattoos and four piercings. Personally, I’m not a big fan of piercing. I had my tongue pierced for a while. but I eventually took it out.

Q: What do each of your tattoos represent represent?

A: I have Dot Rat tattooed on my back. It’s a slang term for someone who grew up in Dorchester, a working-class neighborhood in Boston. I still live there.

I have a skeleton key on my right arm. I love skeleton keys, the way they look, and knowing that they were used to open something long ago. The shield surrounding the key is similar to a tattoo my brother has, and the letters “LL” stand for my fiancée, Lauralee Summer. She’s a writer too – Simon & Schuster recently published her memoir about growing up homeless, it’s titled Learning Joy From Dogs Without Collars.

On my left arm is the number 22. That stands for my address, 22 Newport Street in Dorchester, where I’ve lived for the past seven years.

I have a tribal design on my lower back. And a Dropkick Murphys symbol on my left arm.

Then I have Hobbes on my hip – the tiger from the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes. It was my first tattoo; I got that when I was 16.

Q: How would you describe your lifestyle to the middle-aged white men that dominate mainstream journalism?

A: I don’t really know how my colleagues spend their time outside of work, so I can’t really make a fair comparison. I like to go out and do things – I enjoy checking out concerts, nightclubs, parties, art events, that kind of thing. So I get to meet lots of people – magicians, actors, writers, cops, Olympians … all kinds of people. I met a vampire once, but that’s a whole other story.

Q: What has been your proudest journalistic moment?

A: There’s so many of them. Back in 1999, I wrote a story about a group of homeless veterans who would hang out and drink in the woods. They agreed to be interviewed about their situation, and one of the guys wrote his own first-person piece to accompany my story. Then the following year, I did a series of stories on financial mismanagement at a public school.

Most recently, my colleagues Steve Maas, Bill Polo and I did several stories about the people who live at the Fernald School, the country’s oldest institution for the mentally retarded. The state is trying to close it down permanently. The people at Fernald can’t see, speak, hear or walk. It was humbling, having the opportunity to visit these folks, interview their families, and tell their stories.

Q: Do you have any words to live by?

A: “Evil Is Everywhere.” That became my slogan while I was working for that chain of small weeklies. During one staff meeting, I was explaining about some investigative reporting I was trying to do, and I said I wanted to investigate every public agency I could, because evil could be lurking anywhere – and everyone laughed. When I left that job a couple years later, the editor gave me a T-shirt emblazoned with “Evil Is Everywhere.” I’ve used that saying as my screensaver

ever since.

Q: What advice can you give people who want to express themselves more and get out of the mainstream rut of suits, ties and city council meetings?

A: Just be yourself. If you’re hard-working, accurate, motivated and passionate about journalism, the clothes become less important.