Sunday, August 28

Standards & Practicalities

Our modest little publication has a standards editor--he covers things related to technical standards, like Basel II and SWIFT messaging and Web services--but his job is nothing like that of the standards editor at the New York Time, conversing in today's edition with the paper's public editor:
MR. SIEGAL I'm supposed to be the recipient of any complaints and misgivings by the staff about how we're doing and what we're doing, the person who adjudicates differences of opinion about how we should go about reporting and editing stories. By the charter that my job was given when it was set up, I have the guaranteed right to go not just to the executive editor with any misgivings I have, but directly to the publisher. On one occasion, when I thought that there was too much opinion seeping into the news pages, I went to both of them simultaneously. But that's the only time I've felt it necessary to involve the publisher. I spend time helping staff members navigate our ethics and conflict-of-interest policies, and I'm the person who interprets those rules for them. I spend, also, a fair amount of time helping the paper decide when something should be corrected. I also believe -- and I do a certain amount of possibly tedious preaching -- that we can save ourselves a lot of pain if we don't do anything that we would be embarrassed to have readers know about, that everything we do ought to be something we're willing to describe to readers and tell them about.

Tedious preaching? Sounds like my job! Not that I have to be tedious and preachy. I try not to be. I don't think I always succeed, mostly because the alternative is a lot of Socratic process that you don't have a lot of time for on deadline. All rational conversation has the potential to end with the words "because I said so."

Q. How candid do Bill Keller, the executive editor, and Jill Abramson, the managing editor for news, expect you to be if you disagree with them on a standards issue? A. Well, we preach and teach pushback here. We think that pushback was one of the crucial lessons learned in the Jayson Blair episode, that people were afraid to speak up. I lead some number of new staff orientation sessions and middle-management training in which I talk fervently about pushback as a responsibility we all have. So it would be hypocritical of me not to go to them and tell them that I have misgivings about what they're doing. And I would. It's been my experience in the last two years or so, since I've had the formal title of standards editor certainly, that Bill and Jill are very conscientious about referring a question to me before they decide the question. And they bring me lots of stuff. And they may tell me which way they're inclined to go. Or once in a while they'll say, we thought that we were probably going to have to do such-and-such, but let me know if you disagree. And they seem to mean it. It's funny, the most contentious areas these days, of that kind, are in the area of business-side relations, because the perception in the building is that revenue is so stressed and the competitive field is so demanding that we can't be quite as fussy as we used to be about certain fringe things. Not the core ethical practices.

Is it just me, or does it seem strange to have both a public editor or ombudsman, who advocates for the interests of readers, and a standards editor, who applies ethical principles to day-to-day cases? I can't quite articulate why. I guess it's because the two jobs both have to do with the fine line between "giving the readers what they want" (sexy naked girls on Page 3 or Willliam Safire on Sunday?) and "serving the public interest."

I mean, professional ethics are all about seeking the truth and serving the public interest. So isn't that already part of the standards editor's job, along with preserving the paper's patented use of honorifics? The standards editor has the power to decide things, but does not have his own column, while the public editor has no power except the power of the pen? Is that it?

Well, that line of though doesn't clarify much. All I can say is that maybe it's a good thing these guys have finally actually met ...


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