The pressure's on, and the editor's gone

Over at Craig Silverman has published an astute article about a clutch of recent cases of fabrication by young journalists, looking for the common elements.

He finds them: carelessness about sourcing, willingness to manipulate quotes and facts, and the relentless pressure to produce. Underlying them all is the failure of editors to address problems before they balloon into scandals: "To overlook failures of attribution, mangled quotes, cherry picked or misrepresented sources is to blindly ignore warning signs of deeper problems."

In one of Mr. Silverman's specimen cases, Liane Membis was found to be fabricating sources while working as an intern at The Wall Street Journal. The Journal, at least, maintains standards of editing that may not be what they once were but remain higher than at most publications. What goes on, one has to wonder, at the publications that have diminished or largely eliminated the role of the editor? I'm thinking in particular about those outfits in which green journalists are under pressure to produce a high volume of copy which goes directly from writer to reader after a quick glance from an editor (if that). 

One inescapable responsibility of an editor in such an organization is training. Credentials from journalism programs are good things, but reporting and writing and editing are crafts that one masters through apprenticeship. Apprentices need oversight, advice, encouragement, correction. And even a journeyman will profit from an editor's attention. There is no upward limit on learning in this trade.

The other inescapable responsibility of an editor is skepticism. An editor does not take the text presented as a given but starts to ask questions, ever more insistently. How do we know this? Who says so? Where does this information come from? Have you verified it? Did you press the source on this point?  Did you follow up on that angle? Can you get more?

Every week, as we in the business read of another clutch of journalists being heaved over the side, with or without benefit of lifeboats, we know that the role of the editor is being further diminished. We know also what ensues: hastily written articles, superficial and inadequately sourced.

Beyond the slipshod work there lies the ominous possibility of dishonest work. It would be nice to think that instances of plagiarism and fabrication are isolated outbreaks by a mere handful of journalists. Look at Mr. Silverman's review of the year in plagiarism for 2011 and wonder, as he does, how many cases go undetected in this enterprise whose credibility grows increasingly tattered. I am not sanguine.

Yes, you can save a pile of money by eliminating editors. You can also save money by eliminating inspectors at meat-packing plants. The question is what you plan to do about the inevitable consequences.





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