Does Bad Editing Suggest Bad Reporting?


I recently asked a handful of friends, all writers or advanced degree holders, the following question: If you noticed an unusually high number of typos and grammatical errors in an online news site -- a site with which you were not familiar -- would it diminish your confidence in the information being reported?

The initial answers included a lot of waffling: Some very good writers have bad grammar, my friends replied. Not all blogs have editors. Stuff like that.

No, I responded, I’m not talking about blogs or creative writing or commentary pieces. I’m talking about news: Would too many typos raise a red flag about the accuracy of the news itself? After more hemming and hawing, the consensus was “Maybe, maybe not.” Their answer disturbed me.

High-quality media outlets have long followed the same basic playbook for reporting the news. At the same time, they have also used copy editors and proofreaders. That’s why excessive typos are, in fact, a red flag about the content. It’s not that quality copy editing is necessary to quality reporting. It’s simply that the two have traditionally gone hand-in-hand. When editing standards go missing, an informed news consumer must wonder whether reporting standards are missing, too.

Twenty years ago, news consumers didn’t need to understand how journalism works. They didn’t need to know at what point a reporter could call someone a murderer instead of an alleged or accused murderer. They didn’t need to know which sources journalists can use (for example, eye witness accounts) and which they cannot (for example, secondhand eye-witness accounts). They didn’t need to know that reporters interviewing sources about one side of an issue are obligated to talk with someone from the opposing camp. And they didn’t need to understand the hazards of using unnamed sources. Instead, they just opened their newspapers in the morning and reaped the rewards of the highly regimented procedures that made up professional journalism.

Then came the explosion of commentary programs and news aggregators -- both of which could lure advertising revenue away from traditional news operations because they didn’t have the tremendous overhead costs of actually gathering the news. Suddenly, the journalists operating from the old playbook were looking like an endangered species. Major news agencies were laying off reporters and closing bureaus around the globe as non-news-gathering organizations undercut their advertising rates and the public got more of their news from blogs and commentary programs.

The journalists bound to traditional news-gathering practices and ethics were now mixed in with an exploding number of news suppliers playing by their own rules. The process that news consumers had always taken for granted could no longer be taken for granted.

The burden now falls on the reader to discern good information from bad. And in a system that relies on an independent press to safeguard freedom and democracy, media literacy -- understanding how news is properly gathered and being able to spot the clues that it’s not  -- is no longer optional.


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