Monthly Archives: April 2012

The source of arguments in journalism and the role of editors

Any attempt to analyze the quality of arguments of journalists must come with an understanding of newsroom dynamics. This short post is about one part those dynamics: the role of editors.

In my thesis, which analyzed the argument quality of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism, I frequently referred to “the reporter’s argument.” In a footnote, I wrote that such descriptions were oversimplifications because journalism is the product of several forces inside and outside the newsroom. The kind and quality of argument a reporter can generate is limited by those forces.

When I wrote that footnote I had in mind things forces like copy desk trims or government agencies who horde official data. But Tim Vos, one of my committee members, pointed out to me a force I hadn’t considered: editors.

In particular, a story might be considered “done” — meaning, posted to the CMS, dispatch to copy editors, or what have you — not when the reporter thinks he or she has presented a strong argument. Instead, an editor decides because the deadline is near, or has been waiting for the story for a long time, or doesn’t want to push a story in a particular direction.

“The Wire” dramatized an approximate version of the above forces, albeit with a reporter and editor confronting another editor:

Meanwhile, readers, who have enough trouble learning about the reporters whose names grace the arguments presented in news stories (Matthew Ingram on this point last year), now have to wonder: What do I know about the editors who might be pushing the story forward? How could I find out?

The point to all of this is that whether stories contain arguments ready for use by readers can depend on the views of argument quality by at least one unknown person. This person might or might not have as strong a sense of a good argument as the reporter.

The unknown quantity that is the editing process creates uncertainty for those who try to use journalism in part of their daily lives. The uncertainty adds a measure of importance, I think, that journalists (of all positions) open up a little about themselves with their communities — to say “where I’m coming from.” For readers who approach journalism as argument, such openness creates an opportunity for more trust in reporting.