March 22, 2019

Perhaps the most powerful people in journalism are the standards editors.

They work at the largest and most influential newsrooms in the country, carrying out the hard work of setting their company’s ethical standards.

In doing so, they influence American journalism in all of its unlicensed and mostly unregulated glory.

And because there are no mechanisms for creating or enforcing universal standards in American journalism, these editors play an important, if unofficial, role in spotting trends and setting new policies.

During recent visits to several newsrooms and an equal number of check-in phone calls, I got a taste of the most pressing issues facing standards editors today. Here’s a round-up of the issues they are wrestling with.

(Note: Standards editors are often confused with ombudsmen, who are externally focused on the audience’s reception of that organization’s journalism; or public editors, who are oriented internally on the process of creating journalism. Both jobs are important. While public editors often point out the need for new policies, it’s the standards editors who actually create and enforce the policies.)

Sloppy social media behavior by journalists was by far the most commonly cited issue vexing the editors. Journalists post things that haven’t be vetted, that reveal their biases and that are unfair and one-sided.

The standards editors all understood the pressure. Journalists are rewarded for building a brand and a substantial following on social. And that happens with quick, clever and frequent posts.

“We get a little too cutesy on social,” said Manny Garcia, who serves as both the standards editor and the executive editor of the East region for the USA Today Network. “Tone is tough.”

And all of the standards editors said the struggle is a daily constant.

“What we try to tell the newsroom is if you wouldn’t say it on the air, don’t say it on social media,” NPR Standards Editor Mark Memmott told me over the phone. Well that standard won’t work, I replied. The whole point of social media is to throw shade, show off and make inside jokes, right?

Hyperbole aside, when I talk to journalists with a highly effective social media presence, they all say they expect to occasionally, and some would say routinely, be chastised. It’s kind of like of like being offsides in soccer. As a journalist trying to participate in the ongoing conversation about relevant issues, you’re not doing your job if the line judge isn’t raising his flag every now and then.

When you think about it that way, journalists with a strong social brand are likely to overstep the policies that individual newsrooms have expressed around professional and journalistic behavior. For the standards editor, policing the behavior on social media is a never-ending task.

Getting corrections right is harder when you are constantly publishing on multiple platforms. The general rule of thumb is to correct errors in the place where the audience that experienced the mistake is likely to see the fix. The stakes are high for push notifications and social media posts. How to determine the threshold for corrections in video and audio is even more complicated.

In my experience there’s a direct correlation between journalistic quality and the amount of time and energy a news organization spends on corrections. The Wall Street Journal’s Neal Lipschutz, currently the deputy editor-in-chief, but who served for five years as the standards editor until recently when Emma Moody was announced as his replacement, touted his paper’s approach. No factual error is too small, he told me. Get the apostrophe in the wrong place in Lands’ End, run a correction. Big errors, like mixing up millions and billions when talking about GE’s debt, get the same treatment. Reporters are expected and encouraged to fix every single error.

The true value is the data gathered as a newsroom talks about the mistakes that were made and how to prevent them.

Transparency and labeling content  is another area of concern. Everyone agrees that content should be labeled news, opinion and/or analysis. Not everyone agrees on the definitions of those categories. And even harder is making newsroom content management systems attach labels that stay with the content.

Likewise, disclosing business partnerships, funding sources and conflicts of interest gets more complicated as the revenue lines diversify. It’s a good problem to have, because it means the business is expanding. But if you’re a standards editor, it’s a never-ending process of sorting through what’s significant or not in the eyes of the reader.

And even for organizations like NPR, which makes a habit of disclosing sponsors and donors — because the news and development departments are separate — it’s hard to catch them all.

Taking down content? Many newsrooms are quietly taking down old stories with reporting problems. Most of the time these are poorly reported police blotter items. Sometimes they are stories of greater substance. The USA Today Network has seen enough of the issue that it is changing or eliminating how it initially reports police blotter items, Garcia told me.

Perhaps the hardest thing, The New York Times’ Phil Corbett told me, is responding to readers and critics — sorting through the loud and persistent volume of criticism to hear what’s genuine and what’s part of a broader campaign of righteous indignation.

The Times has an entire team devoted to reader responses, as well as separate teams focused on social and audience development. With so much criticism every day, learning to hear it rather than dismiss it is a difficult technique to perfect. “We don’t want to be cynical,” Corbett said. And yet, could you imagine a day in the complaint department at The New York Times?

This brief survey of standards editors at some of the largest and most influential news organizations is a window into issues every newsroom is likely facing. There is an ongoing need to evolve and update journalistic codes of ethics. Yes, having a standards editor might be a luxury that only the largest organizations can afford right now, but journalists can open the lines of communication in their own newsrooms to advocate for right and wrong internally.

As a profession, our ethics are built company by company. If you don’t have a standing committee that meets quarterly to discuss ongoing issues, start one. If you don’t have a code of ethics, or a set of standards and practices for the newsroom, draft one.

How are you doing it in your newsroom? How do you stay on top of the issues that need an update in your ethics handbook? Do you even have a handbook? Email us

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Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty…
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