Student guest post: Editors, let your reporters prove you wrong

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 15th of those posts. Ryan Wilusz is a senior majoring in journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has written for the College Town website, and after graduation, he will work as a reporter at The News Herald in Morganton, North Carolina.

As a journalist, I hate to bring up old news; what’s done is done.

But with Bill O’Reilly no longer a member of Fox News, I have naturally reflected on some of his most outrageous moments from, what Indira A.R. Lakshmanan of The Boston Globe calls his “bulletproof bully’s pulpit.” But perhaps the most noteworthy (and meme-worthy) moment of his long career happened off the air during his time on “Inside Edition.” In outtake footage that surfaced in 2008, O’Reilly can be seen screaming about the teleprompter as he struggles to decipher what exactly his lines are supposed to mean. In the end, he yells profanities at his coworkers and decides to override the script using his own words to end the show.

With O’Reilly’s talent and political knowledge, perhaps you would make an exception for such behavior. But as an editor, imagine for a moment that one of your reporters disagrees with your editorial decision and stands up for his or her choices. Perhaps they don’t stand up quite as strong as O’Reilly, but they stand up nonetheless. What do you say? What do you do?

Being an editor is all about managing reporters and making things right. But don’t think for a moment that the editor should always be the one who is correct. I would argue that good editors should encourage reporters to prove them wrong. In fact, I would say good editors should embrace healthy forms of insubordination. There is such a thing.

But don’t listen to me; listen to legendary investigative reporter Bob Woodward when he said, “All good work is done in defiance of management.” Now I’m not saying you editors out there should let your reporters stomp on your work and disregard your title. You still are the ones in charge, after all. But what happens when reporters begin to accept everything you say? What happens when they begin trying to satisfy you and not the readers?

It may sound silly, but it can happen so easily. Even as a student, this has happened to me. I have found myself, after receiving feedback on early-semester assignments, attempting to write in a way that avoids being counted off for things my professor didn’t like. But the professor is just one reader. The professor is, in a way, the editor. I could sit there and argue about my grade all day, but it wouldn’t change a thing.

But when you encourage arguments and healthy insubordination inside the newsroom, you encourage reaching a conclusion together, you encourage dialogue and you encourage reporters to be inquisitive. If reporter can’t feel comfortable standing up and questioning their editors, how can those reporters feel comfortable asking the hard questions of sly politicians?

And just as politicians will fight back, you should too. After all, good journalists are often the ones who are rough around the edges — ones who refuse to accept what is handed to them until they know it is correct.

I read in Carol Fisher Saller’s “The Subversive Copy Editor” that the editor who makes and stands by his or her countless changes is often not the best editor. Believing there is a standard way to do something and blocking out other voices means you only have a few tricks in your bag.

So I encourage editors: add some tricks. And let your reporters throw in a few tricks of their own. Reporters who feel comfortable standing up for themselves and asking questions will do the same in the field. Practice how you want them to play.

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