By Jacqui BanaszynskiWhenever someone asks if they could tap me as an editor to help them with a project, I start with a direct question:
What do you mean by “editor?”
Many seem baffled by that question. No doubt they are clear about their understanding of what an editor does — an understanding that probably comes from their primary experience in the world of journalism and writing. But to be of any use, I need a clearer description of what they need help with, and whether I’m the right kind of editor to provide that help. Do they want someone to help with story focus or even the validity of the core idea? Someone to serve as an involved but hands-off-the-keyboard coach to read and comment on drafts? An editor to wrestle complex information into a cohesive structure? A line editor who can smooth and tighten their writing without destroying their voice? An eagle-eyed copy editor to read behind them for style, syntax, grammar, accuracy?
Editing is not one thing, and not all editors have the same skills. For several years, I co-taught a Poynter workshop for editors that we called “Five Hats.” Even five doesn’t cover the full range of editing demands. In my riff above, I didn’t mention production or design editors who pull together all the parts of a stunning package, or those who are deft at headlines that are both accurate and engaging. And, of course, some newsroom newsrooms more on administrative duties — personnel, money, organizational policy and culture — than on stories.
DANGEROUS DECLINE IN EDITING RANKS
The latter gets us into a whole other discourse that involves the tectonic shifts in the news industry. Every time I read a story about yet another news organization gutting its editorial staff, I hunt around for what positions are on the lay-off list. Far too often, the first to go have been editors.
There was a time, in the brattiest of my reporting years, when I would have considered that the best of bad options. Even now that I’ve spent half my career on the editing side of the story partnership, I’d vote for feet on the street over fingers on the keyboard. And yet …
Journalism suffers greatly for the dearth of editors. So does the public that journalism serves. The more fraught and frenzied the news, the greater the need for editors who can stand in the center of those storms without being buffeted by panic, passions or politics.
Seldom have modern events been as fraught and frenzied as the current chaos in Gaza. I’ve followed, best I can, the news and the news about the news. The latter often focuses on biases in story selection, headlines, wording. It almost doesn’t matter whether those biases are real or perceived; live long enough and you know that perception becomes reality. In the era of social media, that’s more true than ever as misinformation and disinformation become assumed truths. In the era of entrenched political polarization, every statement is interpreted as a for-or-against position. In the current moment of Hamas-Israel, even non-statements are interpreted as positions.
So I was intrigued when I came across a headline in my morning scroll of the Los Angeles Times:
Will the media get coverage of the crisis in Israel and Gaza right?
It all depends on the editors
That led a 12-graf column by Jonah Goldberg. He was unflinching in his summary of the missteps the press has made (real or perceived) in its efforts to cover this terrifying showdown between Hamas and Israel. (I used the term “showdown” with intention. Look it up.) But Goldberg was unapologetic in his defense of editing as an essential journalistic function — perhaps the most essential. From his column:
What do good editors do? Beyond all of the meat-and-potatoes grammar and style stuff, editors slow the process down as a necessary part of quality control. They tell reporters that an unverified rumor is not printable without adequate verification. They tell opinion columnists that a histrionic argument that ignores contrary evidence needs to be shelved or reworked. They stand against the tide of momentary collective passion or the irrepressible ambition of individual journalists to maintain a higher standard for the institution as a whole.
Take special note of this point: “…editors slow the process down as a necessary part of quality control.”
Pause to think, and think again
Slow is not an approach that gets rewarded in the rapid-fire era of digital information, which too often, too quickly and too pervasively becomes misinformation. Yet in 50 years as a reporter, editor and teacher, I’ve never known a moment or a story or a problem that doesn’t benefit from a pause, a deep breath and a clear mind. From a good editor. That can be the difference between clarity and confusion, certainty and questioning, known truth and opinionated conjecture, trust and the erosion of trust.