Reporters are personally responsible for anything that appears under their bylines. For the reader, that means bylines provide a measure of accountability.
But some news articles – particularly political news articles – are so ill-conceived, so misguided, and so disconnected from reality that you can’t blame the reporters. At least not entirely.
In those cases, it’s the editors who are most at fault. In many cases, they assigned the article. They looked it over, maybe sent it back for revisions. At some point, they decided it was fine. And it’s the editors, not the reporters, who ultimately decided that it should see the light of day.
A newsroom has a culture that’s set by the top-level managers and owners, whose names are public. You can blame them for an institution’s overall credulity, deference to authority, commitment to both-sidesing, forgetfulness and smugness.
But it’s the mid-level editors who make it happen. They are the ones giving the orders, writing the headlines, failing to fix mistakes, and — too often — publishing garbage.
When I read something awful, I want to know not only who wrote it, but who assigned it? Who decided it was OK to publish it this way? Who wrote that headline? Who decided it merited big play? (When I read something terrific, I have the same questions.)
My whole “let me rewrite this for you” recurring feature is about editing failures. But I don’t know who to blame, because they don’t identify the responsible editors.
Almost alone among news organizations, Reuters identifies each article’s writers, reporters, and editors at the bottom, right above a link to its “trust principles.”
I call on other news organizations to start doing likewise.
It’s past time these editors showed themselves, instead of operating in anonymity – unaccountable, and also uncelebrated.
It also also ought to be obvious how to contact the reporters and editors for each story. I’d even like to see a solicitation, asking the sources of the story if they feel they were fairly represented, and asking readers if they have reason to believe that something in this article was inaccurate or requires clarification or expansion.
News CEOs see benefits in brands that are trusted. Journalism scholars have determined that transparency is what leads to trust.
So all I want is a little more transparency.
What Do I Want to Know?
For instance, I would really like to know:
- Who at the Washington Post sent this reporter to Vegas last week to disparage the climate bill by asking “working class” voters stupid questions?
- Which New York Times editors signed off on the big all-caps, top-of-the-front-page headline “A Simmering Feud Peaks in Search of Trump’s Home” — validating the bullshit Republican frame that searching Trump’s home for stolen documents was an act of partisan hostility rather than the much-delayed redressing of an obvious crime?
- Who at the New York Times thought this article about the violent rhetoric of the right didn’t need any context about the danger that poses to democracy?
- Who at the Washington Post made the call that Fox News’s evening lineup consists of “conservative opinion shows” instead of “radical right wing propaganda and misinformation“?
Looking through my Press Watch archive and my Twitter timeline for older examples, I sure would have liked to know:
- Which New York Times editor thought that the 2021 headline “Energizing Conservative Voters, One School Board Election at a Time” was more appropriate than the much more accurate “Republicans riling up voters with a lie designed to appeal to racism”?
- Who wrote the banner Washington Post headline in September 2019: “Trump, GOP hit back as coverup is alleged” when everyone else headlined the coverup (and it wasn’t “hitting back” anyway, it was “lashing out”.)
- Who at the New York Times wrote the snide headline and subhead that called a December 2020 Democratic attempt in to pass a Covid relief bill a failed “bit of political theater” when its own story said nothing of the sort? (The excellent AP headline was “GOP blocks $2,000 checks as Trump leaves COVID aid in chaos.” I thought the Times reporters were owed an apology.)
- Who at the New York Times assigned the 2020 interview with the pro-Trump Nebraska farmer whose tractor burned down?
- Who sent New York Times reporter Elaina Plott to Atlanta in 2020 in search of “real” white college-educated Trump supporters, and didn’t stop to ask how she found them and whether they weren’t actually Republican operatives?
- Which New York Times editor didn’t check to make sure that the guy Jeremy Peters chose to exemplify his thesis about ordinary Virginians voting Republican in 2021 due to their “dissatisfaction with the political culture” wasn’t actually a prolific Republican donor and spreader of false scare stories about “critical race theory”?
- Which spineless editor at the New York Times changed the word “failures” to “missteps” in a 2020 story about the White House’s handling of the Covid epidemic? And who’s the hero who changed it back?
- Which New York Times editor decided it was appropriate to give Mitch McConnell and Republicans credit for ending the fake political and financial crisis they ginned up in 2021 purely to confound Democrats?
- How many New York Times editors signed off this 2021 analysis of “endemic misinformation” in partisan politics that never addressed who is spreading it?
Editor v. Editor
I often feel that there are warring camps of editors at our major news organizations – and we deserve to know who’s where.
It was an editor on the Associate Press’s Team Spineless who moved this April 17, 2020 story reporting that Trump “has given governors a road map for recovering from the economic pain of the coronavirus pandemic.
It was an editor of Team Gutsy who moved this story, only hours later, saying that those guidelines “had the hallmarks of a permission structure. But what he really created was a blame structure.”
Someone on Team Spineless edited this October 9, 2020 story quoting Trump saying he felt “perfect” a week after his Covid diagnosis.
But someone on Team Gutsy approved this one, hours later, reporting that Trump had “demonstrated anew” that “he can’t be relied on to give a straight account of the disease that has afflicted millions, now including him.”
It’s inexplicable to an outsider without a roster.
The Washington Post, similarly, runs bold articles full of straight-shooting democracy coverage, like “Trump-allied lawyers pursued voting machine data in multiple states, records reveal” but also obsequious and obfuscating articles like “Michigan plot to breach voting machines points to a national pattern,” which tried to airbrush Republicans out of the picture. These don’t simply represent the work of different reporters; they represent utterly different editorial philosophies.
Sometimes, it’s the editors at the Post and the Times who go head to head. In 2019, both papers published stories on the biggest takeaways from the transcript of Trump’s extortionate phone call with Volodomyr Zelensky.
The Post’s version: “1. It mentions no explicit quid pro quo.”
The Times’ version: “1. Trump asked for an investigation into the Bidens.”
The Times won! But to whom should I have presented the award?
Who can I trust? Who can’t I? It’s not just the bylines that matter.