By John E. McIntyre
The Baltimore Sun
3:33 PM EST, January 17, 2013
Perhaps you have been reading comments on the peculiar story of Notre Dame football player Manti Te'o and his apparently imaginary deceased girlfriend.
Some of those comments are severe about the writer at the South Bend Tribune who accepted the account as factual. I think that is unfair. Reporters are human and can be hornswoggled into conveying unreliable information. (Recall how we wound up invading Iraq?) It has happened at many papers, including mine. But while reporters are supposed to be responsible for the factual accuracy of their accounts, other responsible parties are involved in these fiascoes. There are supposed to be editors who ask hard questions. There is supposed to be skepticism.
We know from Bill Connolly's workshops at American Copy Editors Society conferences on Janet Cooke's "Jimmy's World" fabrications that patient close questioning by an assigning editor or copy editor would have disclosed telling inconsistencies and improbabilities in the text. The larger question about these fiascoes points not only to the reporter, but to the editors, and their failure to be sufficiently skeptical.
One reason (this will seem odd to civilians) is that in journalism many editors have never been trained as editors. Most assigning editors are former reporters, and they in turn pick other reporters to become editors, even though the skills of an effective reporter/writer and an effective editor do not overlap cleanly. Moreover, though journalism schools have lots of courses on reporting and writing, not many of them have courses on editing, and what they do have is usually copy editing. So you get editors whose approach to the craft is obsessive recasting of sentences for minor, and sometimes supposed, improvements rather than an analytical approach to the whole text.
Then there is the always troubling human element. Publications have star writers, who have achieved the ambition of many writers to be immune to editing, so editors back off from them. Or the editor has fallen in love with the story (and writer), which makes its publication an outcome of folie a deux. Or the writer is recalcitrant and difficult, tempting the editor to wave the text through rather than engage in another pitched battle of wills.
Or, and here we come to a consequence of the War on Editing, the editor, left standing after a series of staff purges, has to process rather than edit, because there is no longer any time to give much thought to any single text. And then it goes to one of the remaining copy editors, who is similarly overwhelmed.
It is not hard to see how stories like one about the fictitious dead girlfriend get published. What is hard to see is how the business, both online and in print, will muster the skepticism and commitment to quality to head them off before publication. There have to be people empowered to ask the hard questions who have the will and the time to do so.
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