Editors & Reporters: What They Owe Each Other

Editors and reporters are partners in the storytelling process, though unequal in rank and role. That can produce an awkward –- and at times unhealthy –- relationship.

The editor-reporter partnership only works well when both parties are appropriately challenging and supportive of the other. 

Editors should rigorously and respectfully challenge their reporters. They should ask tough questions to make sure that the reporting process is professional and ethical.

Editors should push for precision to ensure accuracy. They should challenge loose sourcing to heighten fairness. They should coach the writing to capture the context that strengthens authenticity in storytelling.

While all these qualities may seem self-evident, even simplistic, one need look no further than recent ethical explosions at The New York Times and the Salt Lake Tribune to see what happens when editorial oversight falls short. Bad things can happen when newsroom leaders go on autopilot or when they neglect their responsibility to keep close tabs on their people and the process.

Editors must accept the responsibility for quality control and high ethical standards.

Part of that responsibility is about oversight. Several years ago, I heard the term "prosecutorial editing" as used by veteran editors Jerry Ceppos and Reid MacCluggage. It made a lot of sense to me then, and its meaning is all the more applicable in this era of ethical meltdowns.

MacCluggage used the "prosecute" term in a 1998 speech to the Associated Press Managing Editors (APME) Conference at the end of his term as APME president. He urged editors to "edit more skeptically." Then, like now, our profession was reeling from what he called "a fiasco or two," referring to the ethical problems at the Boston Globe, Cincinnati Inquirer, New Republic, CNN and Time magazine.

It's the editors' job, MacCluggage said, "to challenge information reporters bring back to the newspaper, and to question conclusions drawn from that information. It's our job to battle assumptions or preconceived notions and provide scrutiny needed to make certain that all stories are fair and accurate."

MacCluggage urged newspaper editors to "develop training of editors and sub-editors in the craft of what Bill Ahearn [of The Associated Press] and I call 'prosecuting' a story. Law school students are taught how to cross-examine a witness. Editors should be trained in a comparable skill. Put the story in the witness stand and cross-examine it. Tear it apart. Expose its weaknesses. Raise all the unanswered questions. Cast doubt on it."

To this important call, I would add the word "respectful." Editors should be tough and tenacious. They also should be respectful of the reporters, even as they prosecute the stories. That respect supports the partnership that must exist between the editors and the reporters.

There is another side to this matter of quality control, the obligation to make sure the journalistic process and product meet the highest craft and ethical standards.

Reporters (and photojournalists and copy editors and designers and researchers, as well) should regularly challenge their editors. That's right. Staff members must be just as rigorous in holding their leaders accountable as the leaders are of the troops.

Journalists have both the right and the responsibility to question their editors about the nature of assignments to understand the justification behind an editor's thinking; to challenge close-minded ideas and baseless assumptions from editors that can skew the focus of a story; to contest a "frame" an editor is putting on a story before the reporting process is reasonably cooked; to dispute the tone and proportion editors give to a story when it doesn't seem to make sense.

The style of the questioning is important, of course, whether it's coming from editors cross-examining a reporter's story or a reporter contesting an editor's position. As my Poynter colleague Keith Woods puts it, "challenge with respect, not poison."

Journalists should never fall prey to cynicism, which corrodes professionalism and undermines organizational culture. But substantive, productive relationships are built on healthy skepticism. Respectful prosecuting and constructive challenging can build trust and heighten quality. 

Editors and reporters owe that to each other and by extension to those they serve.

  • Bob Steele

    Bob Steele asks and answers lots of questions on a wide range of ethics, values, reporting and leadership issues. In his role as the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values he has taught hundreds of workshops and thousands of journalists and media leaders at Poynter seminars since 1989.


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