Neglecting the reader

May 27, 2014|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Coming across a reference to Steve Buttry's excellent advice for tightening stories in a 2011 post at The Buttry Diary, I was particularly struck by his remark about the failure of stories when they are written for sources rather than readers

I want to talk today about some of the things implicit in that invaluable maxim, write for the reader, not the source. A reporter can write about establishing the essential balance of intimacy with and independence from sources; I want to describe an editor's perspective on what goes awry. 

The most obvious hazard for reporters is going native, echoing the jargon of the source. We see it in crime stories written in the stilted formalities of the police report. We see it in education stories that parrot educationese, in stories about government bureaucracies impenetrable enough to have been written by a bureaucrat.

This is bad, and it takes considerable time and editoral labor to English these texts, to convert the insider language into common language. But while going native in this sense is the most obvious failing, it may not be the most important one.

If the writer is captured in the gravitational pull of the source, the story can begin to look like a public relations effort. You've seen them: the admiring and uncritical profile, the puff piece about the business venture that goes bust in six months, the political insider gossip smug about its connections even when the information is inconsequential, the hometown rah-rah. This is not advocacy journalism, which is upfront and straightforward about its intentions, but an unthinking promotion.  

There is a subtler danger. Over time, the writer can unconsciously adopt the source's worldview and priorities. What is important to the source becomes the matter of the stories rather than what might be of most interest to or import for the reader. There is no longer a gravitational pull being resisted, because the writer is now in orbit around the source. But the reader sees very quickly that "this was not written for me" and drops it. 

The writer will inevitably be closer to the source than to reader, even with engagement through social media. And the writer will also be close to the assigning editor, with the hazard that they will come to share blind spots in an editorial version of folie a deux

This we will have to police ourselves. Readers will complain to us about typographical errors and lapses in grammar, real and imagined. They will call us biased for publishing stories containing factual information they do not like to hear. But they will not let us know that we are no longer writing for them. They will simply drift away. 

What is needed (and you surely saw this coming a country mile away) is a corps of copy editors who are not engaged in the development of the story and who can therefore read it with the eyes of the reader, copy editors who are not merely production cogs for print and online, but editors who are expected and encouraged to raise questions, even troublesome ones. 

This is the method that has been proved over time to achieve quality.

Of course, if quality is not a priority, the quick, dirty, superficial, and dull method is readily available. 


 


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