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COMM 313, Editorial Processes: Editors and the bigger picture

(By Ross Collins, associate professor of communication)

People who work in the media business often don’t stop to realize—or perhaps downplay—the power their words have to influence their readers. Words published have a power beyond words spoken, in that their publication gives them the credibility of permanency. We believe it because “it was published in a book,” or in a newspaper, or sometimes we don’t even remember where. I have had discussions over the years with people who presume their opinion must be absolutely valid, and mine not, because they “read it in a book somewhere.” We as students or scholars often do research, and think that adding a reference to our statements indicating it was published somewhere automatically gives it credibility:

According to recent research, the sun revolves around the earth (Nern, 2004).

Looking up (Nern 2004) on a reference page might bring you to a publication such as Journal of the Flat Earth Society. Credible? You can decide that, but the point is, publication gives statements more authority—no matter where they’re published. I once read an article in a French journal, in which a supposed skeptic ridiculed another person’s opinion by saying “That’s just another one of those ridiculous things you read in the newspaper!” Then only a few sentences later, he said of his own opinion, “oh, I know that’s true. I read it in the newspaper.”

Accepting that we as (almost) media professionals have some ethical responsibility to consider carefully what we are publishing, we can begin by identifying three different kinds of statements:

Facts are verifiably true statements made by the writer or by someone quoted, that is, a source.

By the writer:

The weather yesterday was bright and sunny in Fargo.

Fact, easily verifiable. By someone else quoted:

It was bright and sunny yesterday on Minnesota’s Big Detroit Lake, according to Detroit Lakes Mayor Sandy Beach.

You weren’t there, but still it’s pretty easily verifiable by consulting weather reports, or asking other people who were at the beach.

It will be sunny tomorrow, according to chief meteorologist Erv. N. Nern.

This one is a bit more tricky. It’s verifiable in that the writer could probably prove Erv said it, perhaps by tape recorder. It’s not verifiable in that tomorrow hasn’t arrived. But it soon will be verifiable. Meanwhile, we rely on the fact of this sentence by examining the credibility of the person who said it. In this case, it is presumed that a meteorologist would make this prediction based on scientific methods of analysis proven to be generally accurate.

It will be sunny tomorrow, according to Ross Collins, associate professor of communication.

Fact? Here we have to question the credibility of the source. But one thing is certain: it will soon be easy to verify.

The point is that a fact presented by a source, a common way of presenting information in the media, may depend not only on objective ability to verify, but also on credibility of the source. This means that if a media writer says something published is a “fact” because “the source was quoted accurately,” she or he is missing the point; readers presume the quote is accurate, but still need to know if the fact that as asserted by the source is accurate.

But most often, no matter who says it, a fact is easy to verify independently.

It is interesting to note that “fact checkers” who go through stories on large publications will sometimes verify facts by making sure the source exists and was correctly quoted. They will not necessarily verify that the material in the quote is correct.

Interpretations are comments based on facts, often made by the writer following a quote from a source:

“It was bright and sunny yesterday,” said Detroit Lakes Mayor Sandy Beach, giving boaters and anglers the opportunity to enjoy a relaxing day on the lake.

Sounds like a safe bet. But do we know this interpretation to be true? Not necessarily—maybe it was too hot to go boating, and the fish weren’t biting. Maybe water skiers bothered the anglers, and ruined the day for everyone. Far-fetched, perhaps. But interpretation is conjecture. We can’t say verifiably that everybody on the lake enjoyed themselves.

Interpretations can get tricky, particularly in more complex stories about important issues. For instance, if I write

Crime on campus has increased 20 percent in one year, making the university a less safe place for students.

The first clause is a fact. The second, an interpretation based on that fact. But is it a reasonable interpretation? Maybe not. If crime on campus consisted of three thefts and two attempted rapes one year, and went up to four thefts and two rapes the next, would you feel less safe? In a campus of 12,000 students? In a campus of 40,000? Maybe yes, maybe no.

Interpretations can also suggest judgments. A judgment is a statement which indicates something is good or bad. Supposedly in “news” writing, we are taught to avoid judgments. That is, we only write “opinions,” declaring something good or bad, in columns and editorial pages.

It was a really nice day on the lake yesterday, according to Detroit Lakes Mayor Sandy Beach.

Did Sandy say this in her statement quoted above? No. The writer presumed that bright and sunny was a good thing, and made a judgment, calling it "nice." A safe judgment? Probably. But not everyone likes sun.

Interpretation gets sticky when it’s part of more complicated stories. Researchers call it the “fully/only” conundrum. For example, I write:

Crime at the university has increased fully 20 percent in just one year.

The word “fully” suggests an interpretation, as does the word “just.” Or I could write

Crime at the university has increased only 20 percent during the entire year.

Just two little words changed, but pretty different statement. Reporters can’t ethically include judgments in an “objective” news story. But they can disguise judgments as interpretations based on interviews. How? Let’s say a reporter interviews four people on campus apparently qualified to speak about crime: the campus police chief, vice president for student affairs, student senate president, and chief of the city’s police force downtown. Three out of four say this 20 percent increase in crime is not a significant amount. “While we would like to see zero crime on campus, this represents very few crimes, after all, and it might be just a coincidence,” says the campus chief. But the student senate president is not convinced. “I really think crime on campus should be zero. Not only do we have some worrisome crimes—two near rapes is two too many—but crime seems to be increasing, not going down.”

How do you portray this difference of opinion? If you as the writer believe crime trends are worrisome, you have a handy way to report it without saying it yourself. You can write

The up-tick in crime on campus is a real concern, according to Student Senate President Irvin Nern. Concerning a 20 percent increase in just one year, Nern said, “Not only do we have some worrisome crimes—two near rapes is two too many—but crime seems to be increasing, not going down.”

University administrators and law enforcement officials were not as convinced that the increase is meaningful. Campus police chief Iva Badge did note, “We would like to see zero crime on campus.” Clearly campus crime is a concern among university leaders.

Do you feel this story represents the facts as collected by the reporter? Is it fair? One thing is certain: no one was misquoted, and every word presented was a fact. The interpretation is what’s more important here, and the suggested judgment. Obviously, you could easily turn this story around to reflect the “only” interpretation.

A judgment declares good or bad. According to accepted media writing values, a writer can’t say in a news story

It will be a nice sunny day tomorrow on Big Detroit Lake.

The word “nice” is a judgment, good/bad. But the writer can quote someone else using a judgment he’d like to see:

“It will be a damned fine day at the lake tomorrow,” said letter carrier Stan P. Cancel. “I wish I didn’t have to work.”

The ethics of how reporters use facts, interpretations, and judgments, disguised or not, often becomes one of the great challengers for editors. Gatekeepers hold viewpoints sometimes dramatically different from one another. Some editors tell reporters what kind of story they want to see even before the reporter goes out on assignment. That is, the reporter’s interpretation is dictated before the event or interviews actually take place. Is this ethical? Other editors let the reporters decide how to cover the story. Reporters would like to claim this is more ethical, because you can’t know what the story is about until you cover it. But let’s point out that a good share of academic research also begins with a point of view. I can’t tell you as an editor how to proceed here, but I can make you aware of some pitfalls in the simple admonition, “be objective.”

Learn more: What is plagiarism?